CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Throughout his presidency, Hugo Chavez has relied on his vigor and endurance: playing baseball, speaking for hours at a stretch and making decisions on the fly while bounding around Venezuela exuding energy.
Now, just as he may need it most, Chavez finds himself ailing heading into a re-election campaign.
It's the rival, Henrique Capriles, who tossed a baseball with Little Leaguers and embraced admirers as Chavez, 18 years older, disappeared over the weekend into a Cuban hospital to have a potentially cancerous tumor surgically removed.
Capriles "represents a contrasting young and energetic option," said Diego Moya-Ocampos, an analyst with the London-based consulting firm IHS Global Insight.
The 39-year-old state governor has also, perhaps inadvertently, blunted some of the sympathy vote that might go to Chavez by shunning direct attacks on the president. He has cast himself as a polite, non-confrontational politician, a sharp contrast to the venom-tongued president, who recently referred to Capriles as "a pig" and has accused rivals of wanting him dead.
But Capriles didn't rise to the bait.
"I wish the head of state a long life," Capriles said. "I want him to see the changes that are going to come about in our country, for him to see a Venezuela of progress, a united country, a country where Venezuelans have many opportunities."
He added a little dart though: "It's important that people who have an illness tone down the confrontation a bit. It's not good for one's health."
History has shown that those who underestimate the socialist president do so at their own peril.
"For now (Chavez's) illness represents a political weakness, unless and until he can put it behind him," said John Walsh, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, an independent think tank. "If he can eventually convince people that he has overcome cancer, then the narrative changes to one of Chavez conquering adversity, and the advantage could shift to Chavez."
"Chavez is a masterful politician," Walsh added. "His resourcefulness in setting the agenda and defining the terms of debate should not be underestimated."
Chavez had seemed to be rebounding from last year's cancer surgery, when he was in Cuba for weeks to have a malignant tumor removed from his pelvic region. At the time, he was often out of sight and was slow to give details of what was going on, leaving Venezuelans guessing about his health. But the hair he lost during chemotherapy has been growing back and Chavez was again back to making extensive, and extended, public appearances. He spoke for about four hours on Thursday as he discussed his illness before departing for Cuba, insisting, "I will live!"
Chavez's refusal to say exactly what type of cancer he had, as well as earlier assurances he had been completely freed of cancer, have led to uncertainly among Venezuelans regarding his chance for full recovery.
Chavez revealed last week that his Cuban doctors had discovered a one-inch (two-centimeter) lesion near where the larger tumor was removed last year and he has conceded he could be out of action for a while. If he is forced to undergo radiation treatment following the surgery, he could be sidelined for several months.
That could leave Capriles free to hog the spotlight back home, making personal appearances at school openings and giving speeches as the campaign builds toward the October vote.
If Chavez is unable to personally lead his re-election bid, that opens him to questions about whether he is still capable of running the government and illness tarnishes his long-standing image as an unbeatable politician just as the long-fractious opposition has finally united behind a single candidate.
Capriles, meanwhile, has been busy inaugurating schools and sports facilities in his central state of Miranda. At the inauguration of a baseball diamond on Saturday, he joined dozens of Little League players for warm-up exercises and tossed a ball around with them before a game.
Neighbors see him go on daily jogs through his middle-class Caracas neighborhood, and he even runs the occasional marathon.
That's the sort of athleticism long displayed by Chavez, a former paratrooper and a pretty good amateur baseball player.
A day before he left for Cuba, Chavez acknowledged that cancer's apparent comeback has obliged him to move beyond his usual politics of personality and lean on others.
"This situation forces me to move forward the appointment of the campaign organizers," he said to loud applause at a packed rally in Caracas. "I swear that I'll live and I'll accompany you to new victories. No cancer will stop us."
While the president's social programs are popular among the country's poor, he is vulnerable to criticism about economic and social problems that have persisted or grown during his more than 13 years in office. Those include annual inflation of 26 percent, the highest rate in Latin America, and soaring murder rates.
While Chavez has insisted that Capriles would eliminate many benefits for the poor, the governor has so far promoted welfare programs similiar to those of Chavez in his own state.
"The race is already shaping up to be close, and a physically weakened Chavez, less potent as a campaigner, would make it even closer," Walsh said. "At this stage it will be difficult for Chavez to recover his aura of invincibility and inevitability, meaning it will be a hard-fought campaign."
Luis Vicente Leon, director of the Datanalisis polling firm, said he expects the tightest presidential race Venezuelans have seen since Chavez's first election victory in 1998.
"It's the first time the opposition kicks off a campaign so close to Chavez," Leon said.
Before Capriles won a Feb. 12 primary, polls by Datanalisis showed a difference of less than 5 percentage points between Chavez and the still undetermined winner of the opposition vote, Leon said. Datanalisis, widely considered one of Venezuela's most accurate pollsters, has not carried out any surveys since the primary.
Emilio Mijares is one of the many Venezuelans known as "ni-nis," or "neither-nors," who have never backed Chavez or his opponents. He said he might vote this October for the first time in more than a decade because he fears instability if Chavez wins a fourth term.
"I don't believe the president is going to get better. His health could deteriorate following re-election, and that would certainly lead to problems," said Mijares, a 48-year-old taxi driver. By contrast, he said he considers Capriles to be an efficient administrator.
Others fear political upheaval looms no matter who wins.
"If (Chavez) recovers and wins, the opposition is going to protest. On the other hand, if Capriles wins the election, the Chavistas will fill the streets and there will be violence," said 58-year-old retiree Maria Guzman. "Whatever happens, we'll have trouble."
Associated Press Writer Peter Orsi contributed to this report.