By FRANK BAJAK and ALEXANDRA OLSONAssociated Press
CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) - Voters chose Sunday between the hand-picked successor who campaigned to carry on Hugo Chavez's self-styled socialist revolution and an emboldened second-time challenger who warned that the late president's regime has Venezuela on the road to ruin.
Nicolas Maduro, the longtime foreign minister to Chavez, pinned his hopes on the immense loyalty for his boss among millions of poor beneficiaries of government largesse and the powerful state apparatus that Chavez skillfully consolidated.
Maduro's campaign was mostly a near-religious homage to the man he called "the redeemer of the Americas," who succumbed to cancer March 5. He blamed Venezuela's myriad woes on vague plots by alleged saboteurs that the government never identified.
Challenger Henrique Capriles' main campaign weapon was to simply emphasize "the incompetence of the state," as he put it to reporters Saturday night.
Maduro, 50, was favored to win, but his early big lead in opinion polls was cut in half over the past two weeks in a country struggling with the legacy of Chavez's management of the world's largest oil reserves. Millions of Venezuelans were lifted out of poverty under Chavez, but many also believe his government not only squandered, but plundered, much of the $1 trillion in oil revenues during his tenure.
Venezuelans are afflicted by chronic power outages, crumbling infrastructure, unfinished public works projects, double-digit inflation, food and medicine shortages, and rampant crime. Venezuela has one of the world's highest homicide and kidnapping rates.
"We can't continue to believe in messiahs," said Jose Romero, a 48-year-old industrial engineer who voted for Capriles in the central city of Valencia. "This country has learned a lot and today we know that one person can't fix everything."
In the Chavista stronghold of Petare outside Caracas, the Maduro vote was strong. Maria Velasquez, 48, who works in a government soup kitchen that feeds 200 people, said she was voting for Chavez's man "because that is what my comandante ordered."
Reynaldo Ramos, a 60-year-old construction worker, said he "voted for Chavez" before correcting himself and saying he chose Maduro. But he could not seem to get his beloved leader out of his mind.
"We must always vote for Chavez because he always does what's best for the people and we're going to continue on this path," Ramos said. He said the government had helped him get work on the subway system and helps pay his grandchildren's school costs.
The governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela deployed a well-worn get-out-the-vote machine spearheaded by loyal state employees. It also enjoyed the backing of state media as part of its near-monopoly on institutional power.
Capriles' camp said Chavista loyalists in the judiciary put them at glaring disadvantage by slapping the campaign and broadcast media with fines and prosecutions that they called unwarranted.
Capriles is a 40-year-old state governor who lost to Chavez in October's presidential election by a nearly 11-point margin, the best showing ever by a challenger to the longtime president.
"Capriles ran a remarkable campaign that shows he has creativity, tenacity and disposition to play political hardball," said David Smilde, an analyst with the Washington Office on Latin America think tank.
At his campaign rallies, Capriles would read out a list of unfinished road, bridge and rail projects. Then he asked people what goods were scarce on store shelves.
Capriles showed Maduro none of the respect he earlier accorded Chavez. Maduro hit back hard, at one point calling Capriles' backers "heirs of Hitler." It was an odd accusation considering that Capriles is the grandson of Holocaust survivors from Poland.
The opposition contended Chavez looted the treasury last year to buy his re-election with government handouts. It also complained about the steady flow of cut-rate oil to Cuba, which Capriles said would end if he won.
Venezuela's $30 billion fiscal deficit is equal to about 10 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
Maduro, a former union activist and bus driver with close ties to Cuba's leaders, constantly alleged that Capriles was conspiring with U.S. putschists to destabilize Venezuela and even suggested Washington had infected Chavez with the cancer that killed him.
He focused his campaign message on his mentor: "I am Chavez. We are all Chavez." And he promised to expand anti-poverty programs.
Voting lines seemed considerably lighter than in the October election that Chavez won, when more than 80 percent of the electorate turned out, although government officials said it was due to the improved efficiency of the system.
Some polling stations remained opened in the evening a little past the official closing time because voters were still showing up.
A few dozen people gathered outside the Caracas center where Maduro voted, in contrast to the thick crowds that waited for Chavez during last year's contest. The acting president punched the air as he got out of his car.
"For him, for the giant, for my father," Maduro said of Chavez after casting his ballot.
After Capriles voted, the opposition candidate declared: "I have no doubt that today, Venezuela wins."
The victor of Sunday's balloting will face no end of hard choices.
Many factories operate at half capacity because strict currency controls make it hard for them to pay for imported parts and materials. Business leaders say some companies verge on bankruptcy because they cannot extend lines of credit with foreign suppliers.
Chavez imposed currency controls a decade ago trying to stem capital flight as his government expropriated large land parcels and dozens of businesses. Now, dollars sell on the black market at three times the official exchange rate and Maduro has had to devalue Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, twice this year.
Meanwhile, consumers grumble that stores are short of milk, butter, corn flour and other staples. The government blames hoarding, while the opposition points at the price controls imposed by Chavez in an attempt to bring down double-digit inflation.
A 37-year-old government employee leaving a polling station in central Caracas with her 4-month-old son and her sister said she was fed up with what she described as political intimidation at her office and was voting for Capriles.
"We have to keep quiet at work or else they fire you or make your life impossible," said the woman, who asked that she only be identified by her first name, Laurena.
She said she had been told to attend pro-government marches. "You go for a little so they see your face and then you leave. It's not fair that you have to stop doing your job to go to a march. "
Capriles said he would reverse land expropriations, which he said had ruined many farms and forced Venezuela to import food after previously being a net exporter of beef, rice, coffee and other foods. But even Capriles said currency and price controls cannot be immediately scrapped without triggering a disastrous run on the bolivar.
High international oil prices remain a boon for Venezuela, underpinning its economy. Venezuela's oil revenue increased 6 percent in 2012 to $93 billion from $88 billion the previous year, according to Central Bank figures.
Chavez spent $500 billion to bolster social programs, trimming the poverty rate from 50 percent to about 30 percent.
But critics say the government has misused the oil industry, ordering the state oil company PDVSA into food distribution and financing of social programs while neglecting needed investment, causing production and refining to drop.
PDVSA's debt climbed to $40 billion last year and the country even has been importing 100,000 barrels a day of gasoline from the United States. Despite a jump in export revenue, the company said its profits dropped to $4.2 billion in 2012, from $4.5 billion in 2011.
Associated Press writers Fabiola Sanchez, Jorge Rueda, E. Eduardo Castillo and Christopher Toothaker in Caracas and Vivian Sequera in Valencia contributed to this report.
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