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Capriles to battle Chavez at polls

Youthful state governor Henrique Capriles won Venezuela's first-ever opposition presidential primary by a wide margin, emerging as the single candidate who will try to end President Hugo Chavez's 13 years in power.

Mr Capriles, the 39-year-old governor of Miranda state, faces a tough task in ousting Mr Chavez, a charismatic campaigner with a loyal following and the full powers of the state to back his candidacy in October 7 elections.

Opposition election chief Teresa Albanes announced the preliminary results, saying that Mr Capriles won about 62% of the vote, beating Zulia state Governor Pablo Perez by a margin of more than 30 percentage points.

Mr Chavez's opponents lined up to vote in many areas, surpassing most expectations with a turnout of about 2.9 million ballots cast out of Venezuela's 18 million registered voters.

Mr Capriles had been the front-runner in pre-election polls among five contenders, presenting a younger, energetic alternative to the 57-year-old Mr Chavez, who has recently battled cancer. "He's going to be the candidate who can get us out of this giant hole we're stuck in," said Carmen Gloria Padilla, a 66-year-old telephone company employee who voted for him.

Thousands of supporters celebrated the win outside Capriles' campaign headquarters, some holding small flags bearing the slogan: "There is a way". Fireworks exploded in the sky above the crowd. "I aim to be the president of all Venezuelans," Mr Capriles shouted, wearing a baseball cap emblazoned with the yellow, blue and red of Venezuela's flag.

Some of Mr Capriles' supporters say they think he has a good chance of winning over Venezuelans who otherwise might lean pro-Chavez because he has taken a largely non-confrontational approach toward the president while promising solutions to problems including 26% inflation and one of the highest murder rates in Latin America.

Diego Prada, a 23-year-old marketing manager, said he thinks Mr Capriles' inclusive approach offers a much better shot against Mr Chavez than other competitors who have taken a hard line against the president. "People are tired of so much confrontation," Mr Prada said. As for Mr Capriles, he said, "he has a message of unity".

The once-divided opposition has gained popularity in recent years, and the race could end up being the toughest re-election bid of Mr Chavez's career.

The leftist president easily won re-election with 63% of the vote in 2006, but since then his popularity has declined, in part due to ills including crime and economic troubles. Mr Chavez's approval ratings have topped 50% in recent polls, and his struggle with cancer does not appear to have hurt his popularity.

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