LA RAIZA, Venezuela — The rival who could pose the greatest threat to President Hugo Chavez may be the only politician in Venezuela who almost never mentions the leader by name.
While Chavez is exuberant, blustery and aggressive toward adversaries, Henrique Capriles has asserted himself as a sort of anti-Chavez: a soft-spoken state governor who tries to avoid confrontation and describes himself as middle-of-the-road in contrast to the socialist president.
That approach seems to be working among Venezuelans who have grown accustomed to invective-filled feuding between Chavez's friends and foes.
Capriles is leading in the polls in an increasingly crowded field of contenders who will compete in a February primary to choose a single anti-Chavez presidential candidate. He is also the first politician in years to roughly match Chavez in support, according to some recent polls.
A survey released this week by the Caracas-based polling firm Datanalisis showed Capriles with about 36 percent support to Chavez's 38 percent in a two-way matchup. The late July survey of 1,300 Venezuelans had a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.
"We've never seen any candidate challenging Chavez with such close numbers," said Luis Vicente Leon, director of Datanalisis.
Capriles says he inherited an entrepreneurial bent from his maternal grandfather, Andres Radonski, a Polish Jew who emigrated to Venezuela to escape Nazi persecution during World War II. Radonski arrived with nothing more than a suitcase, and slowly accumulated wealth after founding a food company that became the local subsidiary of the New Jersey-based Nabisco Inc.
Capriles, a wiry 39-year-old, often wears a rosary along with a baseball cap with the colors of Venezuela's flag. He jumped into politics by winning a congressional seat at age 26 and has earned a reputation as an effective manager as a mayor and a state governor.
He likens his approach to that of former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who promoted pro-business policies while funding expansive social programs that have made him popular among the poor. He even borrowed the name of Silva's famed "Zero Hunger" program for his own food-distribution effort.
That approach has helped him reach swing voters in a country sharply polarized between those who love Chavez and those who hate him.
"He has an attractive profile for groups of government opponents and independents: He's young, has proven experience and has shown successful management," Leon said.
Capriles promotes an inclusive message.
"My politics don't differentiate between ideologies. They're not aimed at dividing people into one group or another," Capriles told The Associated Press in an interview.
Even his criticisms of Chavez's 12-year government are indirect.
"Old chocolate may look good, but when you try it, it's lost its good taste. That's what's happened with this government: The chocolate is old now. We have to try a new chocolate." Asked to describe himself, Capriles alludes to traits that many use to label Chavez: "What am I not? Messianic, nor vain."
His image as a capable administrator has played well in Miranda, which is the country's second-most populous state and includes parts of Caracas and largely impoverished towns in the surrounding hills.
Capriles shows flashes of charisma, and a little populism too. In visits to rural towns, he pumps hands and embraces women who rush to greet him. Some people crowd around him holding documents to sign up for his "Zero Hunger" free food program.
Officials handed out bags of food in the town of La Raiza one weekend last month during a visit by Capriles, who arrived in a helicopter.
One man who rushed to shake hands with him, 72-year-old Rafael Gomez, predicted that Capriles "is the man who's going to be our next president."
A former Chavez supporter, Gomez said he has become disenchanted with what he perceives as inadequate government efforts to address crime, poverty and other problems, and with the president's constant disputes with political adversaries. Gomez said he admires Capriles for delivering what he sees as more effective programs providing food and home improvement assistance.
Still, Capriles is expected to face a tough challenge from Pablo Perez, the governor of the western state of Zulia who, unlike Capriles, is backed by large and relatively better- organized parties.
"The real poll is the day of the elections," Perez told The Associated Press in a separate interview. "I'm convinced I'm going to be the candidate."
Any opposition candidate will face Chavez's formidable political might. And Capriles will have to convince voters he can tackle problems such as rampant crime and 25 percent inflation.
Chavez's allies dismiss Capriles as a right-winger who maintains strong ties to traditional parties that dominated politics before Chavez was first elected in 1998.
"He's very conservative," pro-Chavez lawmaker Rodrigo Cabezas said. "He does not believe the state should play an important role, particularly in the economy."
"Despite his relative youth, he has always been tied to the elite that governed Venezuela," Cabezas said.
Chavez's allies also point to an episode that landed Capriles in jail when he was mayor of Caracas' Baruta district. When angry protesters cut off electricity and water to the Cuban Embassy during a short-lived coup in 2002, Capriles went inside to speak with Cuba's envoy.
He said he attempted to dissuade protesters from laying siege to the building, but prosecutors accused him of violating the embassy's territory. Capriles spent four months in jail before his case was thrown out.
Chavez typically avoids referring to Capriles or other opposition hopefuls by name, saying they all represent the "oligarchy" and U.S. interests. Although weakened by his recent cancer treatment, Chavez expresses confidence he will be fully recovered in time to campaign for the election scheduled for a yet-to-be determined date in late 2012.
When Capriles spoke to residents in La Raiza, he criticized the government's expropriations of businesses, saying the town needed more businesses to create jobs, and drew a firm line between his policies and those of Chavez's socialist administration. "No one should depend on the government. People have to be independent," he said.
Capriles himself is a bachelor, and as he poses for pictures with adoring women, he embraces his reputation as a womanizer. "I'm like a ship captain. I have a woman in every port," he quipped.
An avid runner, he also showed his prowess in a pickup basketball game on a court renovated by his government in La Raiza. Supporters cheered when he drove to the hoop or made a jump shot.
On the court's sidelines, Capriles drew an analogy with the presidential race.
"Once there's a candidate, there will be a team captain," he said. "I want to be that captain."
Associated Press Writer Fabiola Sanchez contributed to this report.