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Originally published Saturday, March 9, 2013 at 5:08 AM

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Maduro leans on Chavez's charisma for popularity

Nicolas Maduro so far has led by imitation, seeking to fill the shoes of a president whose uncanny vigor, mischievous humor and political wiles sowed a revolution and transformed a nation.

Associated Press

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CARACAS, Venezuela —

Nicolas Maduro so far has led by imitation, seeking to fill the shoes of a president whose uncanny vigor, mischievous humor and political wiles sowed a revolution and transformed a nation.

As Hugo Chavez did during his 14-year presidency, Maduro has stoked confrontation, and shed tears.

While steering Venezuela through the trauma of Chavez's death, Maduro has pinned his move to the top on his beloved predecessor.

Yet there are doubts, even among die-hard Chavistas, about his ability to lead the nation.

At his swearing-in Friday evening as acting president, Maduro pledged his "most absolute loyalty" to Chavez.

Then he launched into another fiery, lionization-of-the-masses speech punctuated by tears, Chavez-style harangues and attacks on capitalist elites and the international press.

"This sash belongs to Hugo Chavez," he said, choked up, after assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello slid the presidential band over his head. Hours earlier at Chavez's state funeral before more than 30 foreign leaders, Maduro delivered a speech similarly strident in content and tone.

Maduro, 50, hasn't stopped idolizing the outsized leader who made him Venezuela's foreign minister, then vice president and, before going to Cuba for a final cancer surgery in December, publicly selected him presidential successor.

The National Electoral Council was expected on Saturday to set a date for a special presidential election as early as April.

While Maduro has filled the leadership void since Chavez disappeared from public view after his surgery, many Venezuelans find him bland and uninspiring. Some blame his lack of education, noting the former bus driver never went to college.

Others say it goes much further. After all, Brazil's hugely popular former president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, also started out as a worker and union leader with limited education.

"Nicolas Maduro does not embody Chavismo. He's not in touch with the people," said Carlos Borola, a 57-year-old member of a "colectivo," a radical pro-Chavez citizen's group.

"You can try to imitate the aggressivity of speech. You can try to imitate the conjuring of imaginary enemies. But you can't imitate Chavez's charisma," said Luis Vicente Leon, president of the respected Datanalisis polling firm.

"Chavez was a showman. Maduro is not," he said.

Many worry that Maduro may not be capable of managing the economic challenges of rising public debt, inflation above 20 percent, endemic crime responsible for the world's second-highest murder rate and nagging food shortages.

As Chavez's political heir, he had three months to establish himself as the face of Chavismo. It fell to him to announce Chavez's death, and he sweated through the hours-long walk Wednesday as the funeral cortege crawled through adoring crowds, some shouting "with Chavez and Maduro, the people are secure."

When Maduro was sworn in, boisterous lawmakers shouted "Chavez lives, Maduro carries on." The ceremony was mostly boycotted by the opposition, which called it illegitimate because Venezuela's constitution says the assembly speaker should be interim president.

For the socialist Chavista movement, Maduro's leftist credentials, at least, are unassailable.

He joined the now-defunct Socialist League at a young age, got some revolutionary schooling in Cuba and later, as Chavez's foreign minister, became close to Fidel and Raul Castro.

Chavez named him vice president after defeating opposition leader Henrique Capriles in the Oct. 7 election. Capriles won 45 percent of the vote, however, in Chavez's closest presidential re-election.

Once Chavez fell from sight as his health failed after Dec. 11 surgery, Maduro began wielding the huge state media machine built by his mentor, mindful that Chavez was unlikely to live much longer and that a snap presidential election was likely.

He began to crisscross the nation and show up on state TV presiding over the distribution of apartments and buses for university students.

As Chavez's death drew nearer, Maduro's rhetoric grew more incendiary, while criminal investigations of opposition leaders for alleged financial irregularities were opened. He launched blistering personal attacks against Capriles, accusing him of "conspiring against the homeland" with far-right U.S. putschists and fugitive bankers.

Maduro expelled two U.S. military attaches for allegedly trying to destabilize the nation, just hours before he announced Chavez's death Tuesday, surprising analysts who had thought a rapprochement between the two nations might be possible under the new leader.

"There was a sense that perhaps Maduro was a more pragmatic person, would be amenable to exchange ambassadors," said Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "The statement he made Tuesday threw a huge bucket of cold water on those hopes."

Maduro had spoken the day before Thanksgiving with Washington's top diplomat for the hemisphere, Roberta Jacobson, about improving ties, especially in fighting drug trafficking. Top diplomats of the two nations met more frequently. But when it came time to honor a newly deceased Chavez, Washington's delegation consisted of two Democratic congressmen and the local embassy charge d'affaires.

Arnson speculated that Maduro might feel he needs to play to the more hard-line wing of his party.

On Friday night, Maduro's voice boomed as he said "the imperialist elites who govern the United States will need to learn to coexist with absolute respect with the insurrectionary peoples" of South America. "Nothing and no one will take away the reconquered independence with our Comandante Hugo Chavez at its front."

He did not mention how he might confront Venezuela's multiple ills, including crumbling infrastructure and diminishing production of oil, which accounts for more than 95 percent of its exports.

Capriles, meanwhile, fired back at Maduro, saying he had withheld criticism since Chavez's death out of respect but could no longer hold his tongue at what he considered a power grab by the new leader.

"I tell you clearly, Nicolas, I am not going to speak of the times you lied to the country, shamelessly," said the man the opposition is expected to choose as its presidential candidate. "The people have not voted for you, boy."

Leon, at Datanalisis, thinks Maduro will win the presidency if the election comes soon, but says his shortcomings will become more evident in a few months of grappling with a possible recession, another expected currency devaluation following a 30 percent cut in February, and public impatience with deteriorating public health care and services and rising crime.

For now, Maduro can benefit from having Chavez's embalmed body on public display and the late president's son-in-law, Science and Technology Minister Jorge Arreaza as his running mate, reminding Venezuelans of who chose him to lead the nation.

But people like Edgar Carvajal, a 50-year-old employee of the Chinese appliance company Haier, said people could lose patience.

"We've got to trust in Maduro, but he had better take care of all these shortages we're having and the high prices," Carvajal said Friday while standing in the long line of people waiting to view Chavez's body lying in state.

"If Maduro can't handle it, the people will show him the door," Carvajal said.

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Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera, Eduardo Castillo and Jorge Rueda in Caracas and Luis Alonso in Washington contributed to this report.

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