CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Interim President Nicolas Maduro exhorted supporters of Venezuela's ruling party on Tuesday to stop mourning the late President Hugo Chavez and spring into action to secure Maduro's victory in a looming presidential election.
Speaking in Chavez's native state of Barinas, Maduro told a crowd of red-clad supporters that the best way to honor Chavez is to campaign vigorously for him as the April 14 vote approaches.
Although Chavez tapped Maduro to succeed him, the former vice president has repeatedly warned since Chavez's March 5 death from cancer that the ruling party cannot bank on sympathy alone to defeat opposition candidate Henrique Capriles.
At the same time, Maduro has incessantly invoked Chavez's socialist legacy as president of this oil-rich country for 14 years.
"In homage and in honor of our commander there is but one destiny: Victory, the victory of the Venezuelan people against the forces of evil, against the forces of darkness."
"That victory will belong to our commander," Maduro said.
Capriles, the governor of Miranda state who lost the presidential election to Chavez in October, was campaigning in the eastern state of Monagas after leading a march late Monday in Caracas to protest the government's record on crime.
Maduro interrupted his speech at Tuesday's rally so state television could broadcast footage of Chavez's last TV appearance. It showed an emotional Chavez asking Venezuelans to vote for Maduro if he failed to survive his cancer treatments in Cuba.
Maduro began the day in Sabaneta, Chavez's hometown, in Venezuela's western plains. There, he visited with Chavez's brothers and the humble home where the late leader was born.
The acting president also warned Tuesday that groups he didn't name were plotting to divide the armed forces before the election. In recent weeks, Maduro has cited several threats to destabilize the government, without offering specifics.
Both he and Capriles planned a strenuous campaign throughout the country over the next 10 days.
During a Tuesday rally in the eastern city of Maturin, Capriles criticized the government for failing to boost oil output and noted that production at many companies nationalized during Chavez's 14-year rule has plummeted, forcing Venezuela to increase imports.
Capriles blamed Maduro for the government's shortcomings and urged supporters to help him win the presidency so he can start tackling the country's most pressing domestic problems.
"I cannot do it alone," he said. "We must do it together."
Capriles has also made crime a central theme of his campaign.
Venezuela had at least 10,000 murders last year. So far this year, more than 20 police officers have been killed, local news media have reported.
"People should be able to walk the streets of Venezuela at night without fear," he said.
His Democratic Unity coalition includes opposition groups from the traditional right to the left. On his Twitter account Tuesday, Capriles urged the more than 6 million Venezuelans who voted for him in October to do so again later this month. "Don't leave me alone," he pleaded.
Tuesday marked the first official day of an abbreviated election campaign, but both candidates have campaigned vigorously since days after Chavez's death.
Flags and banners urging Venezuelans to vote for Maduro appeared overnight in the central, poorer district of Caracas, a traditional Chavista stronghold. In Caracas and other cities, placards appeared bearing Chavez's face and proclaiming: "Maduro, from my heart."
Jesse Chacon, a former Chavez minister who now heads the GIS XXI polling firm, said the abbreviated campaign favored Maduro but that the outcome isn't settled. Maduro is "trying to maintain his ties to the fallen president" while the opposition's "much more aggressive" campaign seeks to separate Maduro from Chavez, Chacon told Venevision television.
Associated Press writer Christopher Toothaker contributed to this report.