CARACAS Hundreds of thousands of Venezuelan opposition supporters rallied in a staunchly pro-government part of the capital on Sunday, answering a call by their candidate Henrique Capriles and showing strength a week before the presidential election.
"Today the streets of Caracas are full of happiness and hope, confirming what will happen next Sunday," Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, told the crowd.
Capriles faces acting President Nicolas Maduro, who has vowed to continue the hard-line socialism of his late boss, Hugo Chavez, if he wins the April 14 election. Maduro held a huge rally on Sunday in rural Apure state, on the Colombian border.
More often seen filled with the red flags and T-shirts of Chavez's loyal supporters, the capital's historic Bolivar Avenue was packed with opposition supporters decked out in the blue, yellow and red of Capriles' campaign.
"We're winning this process ... April 15 will be a day of peace and reconciliation between all Venezuelans," Capriles said, before addressing supporters of Maduro's government directly.
"Those who put on a red shirt today, I just ask you: open your eyes! I'll work hard, I'll shed skin, to win your trust."
Despite the opposition leader's optimism, opinion polls give Maduro a lead of more than 10 percentage points.
Both candidates are touring the South American country during a lightning, 10-day campaign ahead of next Sunday's vote, which was triggered by Chavez's death from cancer on March 5.
It has been a bitter run-up to the election, characterized by deeply personal attacks and accusations of dirty tricks by both sides.
The race took a somewhat surreal turn on Saturday when Maduro said a centuries-old curse would fall on the heads of those who do not vote for him.
Maduro, 50, was a bus driver and union leader who rose to become Chavez's foreign minister, then vice president.
At his rallies, he frequently refers to Chavez in adoring terms and plays a video from December where the former president endorsed Maduro as his successor.
"He taught us the supreme value of loyalty. With loyalty, everything is possible," Maduro told cheering supporters in Apure on Sunday. "Betrayal only brings defeats and curses."
Capriles, who is predicting a late pro-opposition surge as sympathy wears off after Chavez's death, is vowing to install a Brazilian-style administration of free-market economics with strong social welfare policies.
Capriles mocks Maduro as a bad imitation of Chavez. He says Maduro's decisions as acting president resulted in a currency devaluation and price spikes that have been disastrous for Venezuelans.
"This country is broken. I like Capriles ... the other one is immature. He just wants to be a copy of Chavez," said Gisela Quijada, a 68-year-old nurse attending the opposition rally.
"Chavez was a leader for them. I can't deny it. But he (Maduro) has nothing in his head. If Capriles doesn't win, we'll keep on fighting for him. But we're sure he's going to win!"
The election will decide the future of "Chavismo" socialism and determine control of the world's biggest oil reserves and economic aid to left-leaning nations across Latin America and the Caribbean.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Philip Barbara and Stacey Joyce)