CARACAS, Venezuela – The best hope for many Venezuelans fed up with what they see as increasingly autocratic rule under President Hugo Chavez may be a gravely voiced political veteran with a reputation for bold perseverance.
Taking the stage at a recent campaign rally, Manuel Rosales pumped his fists in the air, provoking screams of near-religious fervor from thousands of exuberant supporters.
The gray-haired 53-year-old has managed to galvanize Venezuela's long-fractured opposition as its unity candidate to face Chavez in Dec. 3 elections, and is drawing giant crowds in the streets even though he trails Chavez by 20 points or more in most opinion polls.
"Democracy is at risk with this government, and Venezuelans need to unite to defend it," Rosales told The Associated Press in a campaign trail interview, accusing Chavez of wanting to be president-for-life like his friend Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Rosales, who temporarily stepped down as governor of the western state of Zulia to run, is one of just a handful of opposition politicians to remain a regional power broker in defiance of the pro-Chavez tide. He was one of only two non-Chavistas to win governor's races in elections two years ago that saw Chavez loyalists secure offices in Venezuela's other 21 states.
And while he has many middle- and upper-class supporters, Rosales has sought to make inroads among Chavez's traditional support base — the poor.
He strongly takes issue with what he calls handout social programs at the heart of Chavez's populist agenda, saying money is tossed about to secure political patronage.
Rosales proposes instead to create a state-issued debit card to directly distribute one-fifth of Venezuela's oil income among the country's poorest families.
Many Venezuelans think the candidate, a cattle rancher active in politics for three decades, lacks Chavez's charisma.
But in Venezuela's highly polarized society, this former mayor of Maracaibo, the country's second-largest city, has seen his campaign take on religious overtones.
At rallies, some supporters press wooden crosses or figurines of Christ into Rosales' hands. Others hand him pictures of saints, the Pope, or bottles of holy water.
Another opposition candidate, popular comedian Benjamin Rausseo, announced Wednesday he was pulling out of the race after failing to generate anything near the kind of following Rosales enjoys. The 45-year-old Rausseo was hospitalized last week for hypertension, and has trailed far behind in the polls with about 1 percent support.
When Rosales walks through crowds, supporters often try to push past security guards to shake his hand, hug or kiss him.
"He's the only hope we have to get rid of this government. That's why we love him," said Roselyn Fuentes, one of tens of thousands who joined a campaign march across Caracas.
"Take a look at this," Rosales said while riding in a sport-utility vehicle after one campaign stop, rolling up his sleeves to reveal bruises and scratches covering his forearms. "That's the affection of the people."
Some give Rosales poems written in his honor or notes asking for help in finding a job — displays of devotion also seen among Chavez's loyalists.
As for Chavez, he avoids referring to Rosales by name, often calling him as the "ex-governor" painting him as a U.S. pawn. Some pro-Chavez campaign banners read: "Vote against the devil — Vote against the empire."
But Rosales denies any links to Washington, insisting he's an independent-minded democrat speaking for Venezuelans whom Chavez has betrayed. And he's attempted to distance himself from the "old guard" political class, discredited by corruption, that ran the country for four decades until Chavez's 1998 election.
Rosales has challenged Chavez to a debate, but the incumbent has resisted, saying it would be like debating with a grade-school kid.
Rosales has said he could call street protests after next month's vote if he think it hasn't been conducted fairly.
Close friends say Rosales wasn't afraid to act forcefully in 1979 to defend his first electoral triumph, a municipal council seat in his hometown of Santa Barbara, when local political bosses tried to steal the election from him.
Versions of the incident vary, but according to some a gun was fired into the air during an argument between Rosales, his opponents and soldiers charged with safeguarding ballots.
Rosales claims not to remember exactly what happened, saying "problems, attempts at fraud arise in many elections and everyone defends what's theirs. There was a problem there and I defended what was mine."
Asked who fired the gun, Rosales grinned and responded: "I don't remember. Maybe it was a firework."