Henrique Capriles, a 39-year-old governor who casts himself as a new beginning for Venezuela, is expected to win an opposition primary on Sunday, earning the nod to face Hugo Chavez in October's presidential election. (Juan Forero/WASHINGTON POST)

Displaying youthful vigor, Henrique Capriles sprang from his campaign van in the center of this farm-belt town on a recent day, leading his followers on a sprint along narrow streets.

Teenage girls mobbed him, mothers wanted to talk about better schools, and unemployed workers asked about jobs. And some even told him: You look like Hugo Chavez did in 1998, the way you energize your followers.

It is not a comparison the presidential hopeful easily casts aside as Venezuela’s campaign season kicks into gear. When Chavez came on the political scene as a trim, 44-year-old former army paratrooper, his fresh face and revolutionary ideas made him a viable alternative to the established order. He won big.

Now Capriles, who has a wiry athletic build and is 39, is offering a similar break — not only from the aging opposition politicians who came from the two-party system Chavez replaced but also from the president himself.

“I think the government is tired,” Capriles said in an interview in the midst of his campaign here. “It’s a government that talks and talks, promises and promises, but you cannot live on that. It is 14 years in power. We have to close the cycle.”

Capriles faces an uphill battle, but polls released late last year showed him closer to the president than any other politician who has challenged Chavez. On Sunday, Capriles is expected to emerge from a field of five opposition leaders in a first-ever primary designed to choose one strong candidate who could end Chavez’s long rule in October’s presidential election, according to the Caracas-based pollster Datanalisis.

The very fact that a primary is taking place — one in which various parties are represented — demonstrates how a once-fractured opposition has united, political analysts say. Aside from Capriles, two other candidates are younger than 45 and come with new ideas that make it difficult for Chavez to characterize them as part of the old, corrupt order that he smashed in his rise to power.

“There was once no unity. There were centrifugal forces but no structure,” said Ramon Guillermo Aveledo, the head of the United Democratic Platform, an anti-Chavez coalition that is organizing the primary. “We have advanced strongly and are now more coherent and more consistent, with a clearer message than before.”

Chavez’s recuperation

The primary arrives after a year in which Chavez underwent delicate surgery in Cuba to remove a cancerous tumor. Four chemotherapy sessions followed, leaving him temporarily bald. Chavez says he has recovered, though he has not provided a detailed medical prognosis or disclosed what kind of tumor he had.

But since October, his activities have picked up, first with phone calls to state television and later with appearances. He has hosted summits of Latin American leaders, returned to his role as host and central guest of his Sunday television show and joshed around with visitors such as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

“The management of his health problems has been brilliant,” said Carlos Romero, a political scientist here. “Some people spoke of the possibility of a transition because President Chavez only had a few remaining days left. But six or seven months have passed, and Chavez is not only recuperating his health but also he is recuperating his leadership.”

Luis Vicente Leon of Datanalisis said Chavez’s approval rating rose from just above 50 percent in the middle of last year to 56 percent in December and has since inched up more. At the same time, Leon said, the government’s oil-fueled spending machine is in high gear as officials try to build homes for the homeless and start up programs to provide loans for everything from refrigerators to cars.

Javier Corrales, co-author of a recent book on Chavez, “Dragon in the Tropics,” said that central to the government’s message is that Chavez is indispensable as leader of the so-called Bolivarian revolution, a man so vital that it would mean chaos if he were to be replaced. Chavez has frequently said he hopes to rule until 2031.

Chavez has also worked to solidify his base by promoting hard-line associates — some of whom participated with him in the failed 1992 coup that brought him recognition — to top government posts. They include Gen. Henry Rangel Silva as defense minister, even though U.S. officials accuse him of assisting Colombia’s drug-trafficking guerrillas.

Their arrival heralds what will probably be an increasingly bruising campaign season.

“They are wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Diosdado Cabello, recently named to head the National Assembly, said in a televised interview Sunday in talking about the president’s foes. “Their proposals are against the people.”

‘Vote for the best leader’

In a five-hour event he hosted last week in a theater in a poor Caracas neighborhood, Chavez reminded his followers that past leaders provided “hunger, misery, lead and death.”

“We’ll never go back. The retrogrades can forget it!” Chavez said, using a new put-down for his foes. “That’s a new way of calling the bourgeoisie, the ones who want to go back to the past. I call them retrogrades, and they will be called retrogrades forever.”

Still, the president has yet to face an electoral challenge quite like the one being mounted by Capriles, a former mayor and now the popular governor of Miranda state.

Polls show that Venezuelans are increasingly dissatisfied with the government’s handling of rampant crime, rising prices, substandard housing and other issues.

Such discontent helped opponents sweep into Congress in 2010 elections and also turn back a referendum that would have handed Chavez more powers. Those same concerns over Venezuela’s deep problems are giving ammunition to Capriles, who avoids direct criticism of Chavez and characterizes himself as a left-of-center progressive similar to former Brazilian leader Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

“You have to vote for the best leader, the one who will provide the best opportunity for changing the country,” Capriles said as he stopped for a moment during his campaign swing in Acarigua. Reporters thrust microphones in his direction, and Carmen Lucena, a 58-year-old hairdresser, tried to push through the crowd to hear him.

She said that she was tired of the political polarization, which she blamed on Chavez, and that her children were having problems finding work.

“Capriles represents a change for this country,” she said. “I have always admired Capriles, for his work and because he is young and well prepared.”