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Chavez campaigns on 58th birthday

Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez celebrated his 58th birthday at a re-election campaign rally, appearing vigorous after declaring himself free of cancer earlier this month.

Mr Chavez rode atop a truck and waved to crowds of supporters in the Caracas slum of Petare.

He hugged and kissed two of his daughters on a stage where he sang and danced alongside a band. His supporters sang Happy Birthday.

"I want to thank everybody for the messages I've been getting. Well, I made it to 58," Mr Chavez said, adding that Cuban president Raul Castro had called him and that he had also heard from his allies in Bolivia and Nicaragua.

Mr Chavez said earlier this month he is free of the cancer that forced him into months of treatments and caused speculation about whether he would be able to campaign. Over the past 13 months, Mr Chavez has undergone two operations that removed tumours from his pelvic region, most recently in February. The socialist leader has not disclosed key details about his illness, including the type of cancer that had been diagnosed.

Opposition candidate Henrique Capriles spoke at an event east of Caracas in Guarenas, where he swore in supporters who will monitor polling stations during the October 7 vote.

He said Mr Chavez's government has wasted money while schools and roads remain in bad shape. Mr Capriles noted that one Caracas hospital has been in construction for years and called it a "monument to corruption".

Mr Capriles also pointed to blackouts, double-digit inflation and seizures of private companies that he said have cost jobs. "He doesn't have anything new to offer," Mr Capriles said of the president, who has been in office since 1999 and is seeking another six-year term.

Mr Chavez has been leading in most recent polls, though his lead over Mr Capriles has varied widely depending on the survey. A large segment of voters, more than 20% in some surveys, has not revealed a preference for either candidate.

As Mr Chavez spoke to the crowd in Petare, they waved flags and blew horns. He told his supporters: "We need to work very hard. Our lead, I'm not going to say it's comfortable, no. But it's a good lead. Now we have to hold on to it and widen it."

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