Chavez entertains supporters ahead of his sternest election test yet
Venezuelan leader plays air guitar, dances in the rain and blows kisses to his followers in Caracas, making light of rival Capriles' challenge
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez played air guitar, danced in the rain and blew kisses to a red sea of followers, some in tears, others shouting "I love you" ahead of his toughest election test.
Hundreds of thousands of people clad in the red colours of the ruling party created a carnival-like atmosphere on the streets of Caracas despite a tropical downpour on Thursday, the last day of campaigning before tomorrow's presidential vote.
Some arrived six hours before the speech by the leftist leader, who is still the favourite to win but whose rival Henrique Capriles has surged in opinion polls.
Chavez made a rock star entrance, jogging onto the stage with both fists in the air as machines blew confetti and white smoke, throwing the crowd into a frenzy.
"He's the best president we've ever had," said Rosa Castro, 50. "Chavez is here and here," she said, pointing to her heart and a tattoo on her back of the former paratrooper giving a military salute.
After nearly 14 years in power, the president, 58, has developed a loyal following among Venezuela's poor, who have benefited from social programmes including free health care, subsidised food and university scholarships.
"He has united everybody, even the people nobody cared about before," Castro said.
The devotion that Chavez supporters lavish on their comandante regularly brings some to tears at his rallies. Thursday's was no exception.
A few women were carted off to a medical tent after fainting before his appearance. Some people threw rolled up papers with messages on the stage, others shouted "you are my heart!" or "I love you!" But Capriles, a 40-year-old former Miranda state governor who said Chavez is "sick with power," also drew hundreds of thousands of people at his own Caracas rally last weekend, reflecting the opposition's hope of finally defeating Chavez.
Chavez supporters fear that Capriles will end the government's popular social programmes, even though the opposition candidate, who places himself on the centre-left, has vowed to keep them going.
"I heard his [Capriles'] speeches. This is a candidate who doesn't love the people," said social worker Barbara Ascano.
Chavez led the crowd into a rendition of the national anthem before unleashing his trademark attacks against Capriles, calling his rival majunche, a slang term that roughly translates to "worthless".
While Chavez voiced confidence that he would win, he urged his supporters to wake up before dawn on election day to get voters to the polls and give him a crushing victory.
"You have to vote early, so that by noon victory is indisputable," he said as rain soaked his dark-blue rain jacket. "Wake up at 3am, drink a good coffee, chocolate, eat breakfast and everybody vote for the future ... vote for Chavez!"
When he asked the crowd "who is the candidate of neo-liberalism?" and "who is the candidate of the corrupt?" they answered in unison "majunche".
And when he followed that with "who is the candidate of the fatherland?" they responded loudly, "Chavez!"
Chavez closed his speech with shouts of "Viva la revolucion" and the words of Cuban revolution hero Che Guevera, "Hasta la victoria siempre!" ["Until victory always!"] Chavez then rode a caravan through the giant crowd on Bolivar Avenue for his last chance to personally appeal for votes before tomorrow's election.