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If Hugo Chávez's 10-hour state of the nation address to Congress in January didn't reassure the Venezuelan president's supporters he was recovered from cancer, his contemptuous put-down may have done. "Eagles don't hunt flies," said the socialist leader halfway through his marathon speech, slapping down a question by María Corina Machado, an opposition congresswoman.
The timing and nature of the question and its response are significant: the stakes have never been higher for either the opposition or the government in the 13 years that Mr Chávez has ruled this Opec nation.
Ms Machado is one of three candidates hoping to be to chosen to lead Venezuela's opposition against Mr Chávez in October's presidential elections. Defeat for Mr Chávez would mark the end of a socialist revolution that has transformed Venezuela and Latin American politics.
Victory would meanwhile entrench Mr Chávez's rule for another six years, and demoralise an opposition which glimpses a real chance of seeing-off Mr Chávez fairly at the October 7 presidential run-off.
Henrique Capriles Radonski radiated characteristic optimism at a euphoric opposition rally in Caracas. The 39-year-old governor of central Miranda state said the opposition primaries would fire the starting gun for the presidential election "a day which will be historic, the end of an era and the beginning of a new period of progress".
Still, it will be a tough fight for whoever wins the primaries - be that the front-running centrist, Mr Capriles, or second-placed left-of-centre Pablo Pérez, 42, governor of oil producing Zulia state. Trailing are candidates such as right-of centre Ms Machado, 44, and former union leader Pablo Medina, 64.
Mr Chávez, 57, can count among his assets huge electoral resources; a splurge in government spending helped by higher oil prices which will propel Venezuelan economic growth to more than 4 per cent this year, and popular measures such as promises to build thousands of new houses to ease an estimated shortage of 2m.
More than anything, though, Mr Chávez is a formidable campaigner, who has fostered an almost religious rapport with Venezuela's poor, who make up over half the population. "A vote for [Mr] Chávez is an act of faith" in a new house or a new life, concedes Teodoro Petkoff, editor of the opposition newspaper Tal Cual. "The people, the poor, consider him one of theirs."
Working against Mr Chávez's electoral prospects, there is rising inflation - forecast at 30 per cent this year; a growing crime wave, which has cursed Venezuela with South America's highest homicide rate; and a long government record of mismanagement, which has led to unfulfilled social promises that this month led to angry street protests in Caracas.
Certainly, no one in the opposition can hug an old lady, tell a ribald joke, or sing a folk song like the president can. His opponents' well-groomed looks also set them apart from the average voter.
But his opponents have made up for any lack of popular touch with sensible proposals to replace Mr Chávez's failed economic policies, which include price controls and an overvalued exchange rate that has undermined local industry. They have also eschewed any "shock therapy" should they win: a 1989 International Monetary Fund package triggered rioting that left 3,000 dead.
Whether this approach is enough to unseat Mr Chávez is another matter. "The opposition are playing an election game; Mr Chávez is playing a different game - he's operating on the psychosocial level, and Venezuelans are not rational voters," says Oscar Schemel of Hinterlaces, a local pollster.
So far, Mr Chávez's approach is working: he enjoys a 64 per cent approval rating among voters, 10 points higher than last year, according to a Hinterlaces' Janaury poll. Nonetheless, his opponents feel they have the wind in their sails, and have run a faultlessly democratic selection process. This has made the primaries for the Democratic Unity Alliance a boring race - with everyone agreeing to agree with each other.
But it has contrasted with a bungled coup that a very different opposition attempted in April 2002. It has also contrasted with Mr Chávez's recent celebration of the 20th anniversary of his own failed 1992 coup.
The socialist leader casts the jetfighter flyovers and Russian tanks that paraded through Caracas as the commemoration of what he calls "a popular rebellion" - part of a revolutionary historical narrative the government is constructing to buttress Mr Chávez's appeal and prevent what he calls a return to a past when Venezuela was ruled by self-serving and corrupt elites.
"Look at these opposition politicians," commented Miguel Ángel Pérez Pirela, a pro-Chávez political scientist on his popular daily television show on state-run VTV. "They are the same of old, backed by the same interests, I swear!"