CARACAS (Reuters) - Hugo Chavez’s voice booms out from loudspeakers singing the Venezuelan national anthem. A life-sized puppet of the socialist president dances on stage. His face looms from hundreds of shirts and hats on euphoric red-clad followers.
Yet at the latest government election rally, in a renovated colonial square at the heart of the largest slum in Caracas, the man himself is nowhere to be seen.
Chavez’s battle with cancer has kept him off the street during the tumultuous run-up to Venezuela’s October 7 presidential vote, but his larger-than-life personality is stamped on every gathering of his supporters.
“Without his physical presence, we are simply re-doubling our efforts,” said Armando Marenco, a militant Chavez supporter who helped organize two buses to take about 100 people to the Petare slum for the swearing-in of a regional campaign team.
“We believe he will survive. Even if he does not, ‘chavismo’ will live without him. We, the people, are Chavez. He is no longer one man,” Marenco added, summing up the quasi-religious sentiment toward Chavez among his most passionate supporters.
In the square, government figures took to the stage invoking the words of Chavez. Earlier, a rapper warmed up the crowd with a newly-tailored chant: “Es sano, es sano, levantame la mano!” (“He’s healthy, he’s healthy, lift your hand!”)
The charismatic 57-year-old Chavez has for many years been one of Latin America’s greatest election campaigners.
After being pardoned following a coup attempt and freed from jail in 1994, he tramped Venezuela’s streets for four years, his unique popular touch and revolutionary message eventually sweeping him to an unlikely 1998 presidential poll win.
In power, Chavez’s remarkable energy has seen him crisscross the country, deliver marathon speech-after-speech and work crowds into a frenzy to help win almost a dozen votes.
This time, though, Chavez has so far been reliant on “virtual” campaigning - a stream of Twitter messages, some TV and radio appearances, and the occasional short appearance - while seemingly following his doctors’ orders to rest.
Chavez’s lower profile has put the onus on allies such as Vice President Elias Jaua, Congress chief Diosdado Cabello and Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro to front rallies in the big man’s absence.
Lacking Chavez’s popularity and rhetorical gifts - and fearing any overt protagonism that could imply that they themselves have an eye on the top job - they generally fall back on repeating his catch phrases and ideas.
“It’s like Jesus Christ and the apostles,” said Leonardo Agualimpias, a 46-year-old painter, watching Jaua perform a tepid jig with a rapper that was a pale imitation of Chavez’s famous all-singing, all-dancing appearances at such rallies.
“Obviously, the passion and fervour that Christ would produce in person is greater than that of his apostles. But don’t misinterpret this. The opposition think that without Chavez’s presence on the campaign, the election is going to be easy. No way. Anyway, Chavez will be back soon, you’ll see.”
Will he, though? Chavez said he finished radiotherapy last month but has given few more details, and nobody knows his full condition beyond a small group of doctors and confidants.
While he and government stalwarts say he is recovering well, rumours persist that he is close to death after three operations to remove two malignant tumours in the last year.
U.S. journalist Dan Rather lent his name to that end of the spectrum of speculation last week, saying a source close to Chavez had told him he has only a couple of months left to live.
“This reporter has been told ... Chavez has metastatic rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive cancer that has ‘entered the end stage’,” he wrote, enraging Chavez supporters who said the veteran media man was echoing the wishful thinking of U.S. intelligence services.
Ironically, Chavez gave his longest appearance since the recurrence of his cancer in February - chairing a Cabinet meeting live on TV for almost four hours - just hours before Rather’s report appeared.
In fact, he has been on something of a roll lately, phoning in to state media more often and standing in public, albeit gingerly, with a delegation from Belarus last weekend.
Supporters hail that as evidence of his recovery and are predicting he will soon hit the campaign trail in person - but the rumours and leaks persist.
Spain’s ABC newspaper and Nelson Bocaranda, an influential Venezuelan pro-opposition journalist, said at the weekend that the president was taking powerful opiates to ease the pain of what they said was cancer that had spread to his bones.
One source close to Chavez’s medical team told Reuters his condition was “delicate” and he had started to experience strong pain in one leg last month due to the illness’s progression.
Despite that, opinion polls show that two-thirds of Venezuelans believe Chavez will recover.
“He has not had one day of rest in 12 years. He has given his all for this country. It’s hardly surprising he’s feeling tired. He’ll be fine soon, of course he will,” said pensioner Luz Marina Rodriguez, 65, a regular at government rallies.
Chavez’s cancer has given an extraordinary backdrop to the election and is eclipsing all other major factors in the campaign - such as an unprecedented push by the opposition who have rallied behind a single candidate.
Miranda state governor Henrique Capriles’ “house by house” campaigning across Venezuela in the last few months has raised his national profile and cemented an image of youth, energy and on-the-street presence contrasting with Chavez’s absence.
Capriles is planning a march to the election board’s headquarters to formalize his candidacy this weekend, while there is widespread speculation about how Chavez will sign his registration papers without risking an impression of frailty.
Despite the contrasting physical images, most polls show Chavez with a two-digit lead in voter intentions. Analysts attribute that to sympathy over his condition, enduring personal popularity and the success of socialist welfare policies.
Perhaps symbolizing the populist touch that has served Chavez so well, the 3 millionth person to sign up to follow the president’s Twitter feed was recently awarded a free house.
Capriles’ camp insists some prominent polls are manipulated by the government, and say their surveys show the opposition candidate is neck-and-neck with Chavez.
They say some voters are scared to answer pollsters truthfully, and that the opposition’s grassroots campaigning will take a while to show up in surveys.
That view drew mockery at the Petare rally.
“It’s like a boxing fight. Capriles has come out too early, he’s given his all and not done much damage,” said the painter, Agualimpias. “Chavez is about to come out strong in the ring. This fight is only just starting.”
Additional reporting by Mario Naranjo and Marianna Parraga; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray