Red-shirted backers of Hugo Chavez's chosen heir transformed downtown Caracas into a raucous festival on the final day of campaigning for the weekend presidential election, flooding the streets Thursday in the hundreds of thousands to dance, drink beer and set off ear-splitting fireworks.
Interim President Nicolas Maduro, a burly former bus driver who served as Chavez's foreign minister and vice president, is favored to win Sunday's vote. But a poll said his advantage had narrowed as challenger Henrique Capriles hammered away at government deficiencies in fighting crime, chronic food shortages, double-digit inflation and worsening power outages.
Capriles held his own huge rallies in the western states of Apure and Lara.
The crowds at Maduro's rallies overflowed into surrounding streets and turned the area into a party. One group played drums as women dressed as donkeys performed a traditional Venezuelan dance known as the "buriquita." Couples danced to romantic salsa music blaring from a truck at one street corner while blocks away screaming teenagers cheered a hip-hop group singing Chavista songs from a stage.
When Maduro finally reached the stage after a truck inched him through the sea of people, he was joined by Argentina soccer star Diego Maradona, who signed soccer balls and kicked them into the screaming crowd. Maduro had two live parakeets perched on his shoulders — chirping birds have become a symbol of his campaign ever since he claimed that Chavez appeared to him as a bird that flew around his head.
Chavez chose Maduro as his political successor in a December television address shortly before leaving for Cuba for cancer surgery. He was never seen in public again and died March 5, five months after winning a new six-year term by a wide margin against Capriles.
Maduro has capitalized on the outpouring of grief for Chavez, who galvanized poor Venezuelans with generous social programs to provide housing, cheap food, medical care and other services. He has incessantly invoked Chavez and characterized himself as a humble servant of the Chavez legacy, revealing little of his own ideas for confronting Venezuela's challenges.
At the rally Thursday, he pulled out a copy of Chavez's plan for his unfinished six-year term and said those were his goals.
"I'm not standing here because I'm ambitious," Maduro said. "I've never aspired to anything. My only aspiration has been to see my country stand on its feet. I can't remember a day in my life when I didn't work for Chavez."
For many Chavez supporters, it's enough that their late leader told them to vote for Maduro.
"It's an order given to us for a man who honored the poor, who gave this life," Efren Perez, an inspector with the state-run electrical company, said as he watched the buriquita dancers. "Why are we voting for Maduro? Because it's a legacy, it's a mission, it's an order."
Still, Maduro has started to build an image of his own and many in the crowd said they identified with his working class roots.
"The problem is that the oligarchy, the rancid bourgeoisie, hates it that a worker, a bus driver, is the virtual president of Venezuela," Perez said.
Opposition leaders claimed the giant crowds in Caracas were only possible because the government shut down many of its offices, sent civil servants to the march and bussed in others from outside the capital.
"We are in the presence of a brutal use of state resources to mobilize thousands of people from around the country to Caracas. What counts here is what happens Sunday when votes will put an end to this abuse of power," said Carlos Ocariz, director of Capriles' campaign.
Perez milled around a Caracas boulevard with several other workers of the state electrical company, all wearing shirts emblazoned with the company name. Elsewhere on the packed streets, teachers from a state university that Chavez created shepherded uniformed students, who were given the day off to go to the rally.
All passionately defended Chavez's movement and insisted nobody ordered them to come.
But discontent simmers beneath the surface. Venezuela has one of the world's highest homicide rates and strict currency controls have strangled production and brought chronic food shortages. Lack of investment and inefficient management has hurt the electrical grid, causing power outages that last hours.
A poll by local firm Datanalisis said nearly 55 percent of respondents favored Maduro's candidacy, compared to 45 percent who said they would vote for Capriles. It's a comfortable lead but smaller than the 14-point advantage that Maduro held in a Datanalisis poll just after Chavez's death.
The poll, taken for Credit Suisse and other private firms, was conducted April 1-5 and released Thursday. It interviewed 1,300 people nationwide and had a margin of error of about three percentage points.
Capriles told supporters at a rally Thursday that he was the best choice for reactivating the economy.
"If you want a future we have to change the government, give yourself the opportunity of a different project," Capriles said.
Associated Press writers Jorge Rueda and E. Eduardo Castillo contributed to this report.