SABANETA, Venezuela (Reuters) - Venezuelan acting President Nicolas Maduro made a pilgrimage to late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's birthplace on Tuesday and pledged to win the April 14 election in his honour.
"We regard Chavez as our father. He marked our life, that's why we came here to make an oath in the land of his birth that we will never let him down," Maduro, 50, said in the village of Sabaneta where his former boss was born.
"I am going to be president of this country because he ordered it," Maduro added at the launch of his formal election campaign before the oil-producing South American nation's presidential poll.
Opinion polls give Maduro, a former bus driver who rose to be Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, a formidable lead of between 11 and 20 percentage points over opposition challenger Henrique Capriles.
Tuesday marked the start of a lightning 10-day campaign period, although both candidates already had started trying to court voters. The ballot will be the country's first without Chavez after more than a dozen during his 14-year rule.
The burly and moustachioed Maduro is benefiting from the personal blessing of Chavez, who named him as his preferred heir three months before dying of cancer on March 5.
That endorsement, in Chavez's last public speech, stopped in-fighting over the succession within the ruling Socialist Party and transformed Maduro's status in the eyes of his mentor's passionate supporters.
"He is the only candidate who guarantees national independence and can achieve the historic objectives that were set by our commander," said Cynthiq Nouel, a 29-year-old resident of Sabaneta.
Maduro also has a well-financed state apparatus behind him, working-class credentials that play well with loyal 'Chavista' supporters, and the goodwill of millions who have benefited from Chavez's oil-funded social welfare projects, or "missions." Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves.
Capriles, 40, is a centrist state governor who wants to roll back the economic nationalizations and political polarization of the Chavez era in favour of a Brazilian-style model of free markets with strong welfare spending.
He was launching his campaign in the oil-producing eastern state of Monagas on Tuesday. Opposition strategists are hoping the "sympathy" effect over Chavez's death will wear off, giving Capriles a fighting chance if he focuses voters' attention on their myriad daily problems, from potholes to power cuts.
'I'M THE SOLUTION'
Capriles vows to keep Chavez's "missions," though he plans to staff them with Venezuelans instead of the more than 40,000 Cuban workers who poured into the country under Chavez.
"I'm not the opposition. I'm the solution to Venezuela's problems!" he told a large rally in the eastern city of Maturin, wearing the burgundy shirt of the country's beloved soccer team. "But I can't do it alone. I need each one of you to help me!"
Capriles is promising to raise the minimum salary by 40 percent to counter the impact of a recent devaluation, diversify the economy away from oil, and combat crime levels that ballooned during Chavez's rule.
He lampoons Maduro as an incompetent official trying pathetically to imitate Chavez.
"This is a battle against those who use you, who use our people just to get power," Capriles told the crowd in Maturin.
Maduro's visit to Sabaneta on Tuesday was a recreation of Chavez's successful presidential re-election bid last year, when he began a series of rallies in the village.
Accompanied by family members and political leaders, Maduro and others told stories about Chavez - recalling, for example, how he used to sell sweets on the local streets.
Shaded by mango trees in the garden of the humble home where Chavez was raised by his grandmother, musicians played his favourite "llanera" songs from the Venezuelan plains that inspired much of his rhetoric and ideas.
"Nicolas Maduro will be elected on April 14 by the majority of our people to continue accelerating the revolution," said Chavez's elder brother, Adan, alongside Maduro.
They admired a tree planted by Chavez that is named "Revolution," and another named "Rebellion" that was planted by Bolivian President Evo Morales on a previous visit to the house by the two Latin American leftist leaders and friends.
Though Maduro looks on course to win the vote, he faces a tough task beyond April 14 putting state finances back in order after blowout election-year spending in 2012 and balancing a disparate coalition that for years was kept in line by Chavez's strong personality.
So far, the campaign has been characterized by personal attacks and claims of dirty tricks by both sides. Local media coverage has illustrated the deep political differences.
Press freedom group Reporters Without Borders said journalists had to act responsibly and the authorities must apply the laws impartially. "It is time to leave behind the polarization, with constant insults and vilification, that has dominated the media landscape for so long," it said.