If Manuel Rosales’ reputed virility could somehow be cashed in for political capital, he probably would be odds-on favourite to deliver a shocking defeat to Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, in next month’s elections.

Mr Rosales is certainly trying to make the point: on the campaign trail he brings along his eight children, the youngest of whom is a nappy-swaddled infant and is his regularly-fondled mascot on stage.

But if baby-kissing is perhaps being overdone beyond cliché, there is no doubting Mr Rosales’ bent for a major political challenge: to unseat an incumbent with billions of petrodollars in hand and a tough grip on power.

A poker-faced Maracucho, as people from the sweltering city of Maracaibo, the country’s second biggest, are known, Mr Rosales oozes the unbridled stamina of an ambitious Latin American provincial politician.

“We’re facing a powerful monster,” says Mr Rosales, 53, as he catches his breath after a campaign rally in the western Venezuelan city of Barquisimeto. “It used to look like there was no alternative. But we’re going to win. And win resoundingly.”

An air of uncertainty has wafted over the world’s fifth-largest oil exporter in recent weeks. Barely two months ago, the Chávez government never expected its opponents to rally around a single candidate. Neither did the opposition.

But Mr Rosales, who rose from small-town councillor to twice-elected governor of the vast oil-rich state of Zulia, has elbowed aside the circus of young lawyers and political dinosaurs who until recently led Venezuela’s disparate opposition.

However, does Mr Rosales, who describes himself as a social democrat, have a chance against Mr Chávez, leader of his self-described “Bolivarian Revolution”?

Some residents in Barquisimeto, a supposed Chávez stronghold, think he does: “A lot of people around here are tired of Chávez and want a change. If anyone can do that it’s Rosales,” says Gladys Ferrer, a housewife.

A rash of opinion polls has been published in recent weeks for the December 3 election, in which Mr Chávez plans to add a further six years to his eight years in power. But the results differ wildly.

Evans/McDonough, a US company, last week published a poll paid for by Petróleos de Venezuela, the government-controlled oil company, which gave Mr Chávez a 22-point lead over Mr Rosales.

“The data not only shows widespread support for Chávez in the upcoming election, but also indicates that 64 per cent of Venezuelans feel positive about the country’s current situation,” says Alex Evans, the company’s president.

But Caracas-based pollster Alfredo Keller, who uses a different method of polling, says Mr Rosales has been closing the gap and is roughly on par with Mr Chávez, because the government’s support base is weakening.

On the international front, Mr Chávez has notched up a series of defeats this year, with Venezuela last month failing to win a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council despite a multi-million-dollar diplomatic campaign.

Highly publicised offers of cheap oil from Mr Chávez to far-flung political allies also appear to have been put on the back burner. Ken Livingstone, the leftwing mayor of London, was last week forced to cancel a scheduled visit to Caracas to collect discounted fuel vouchers after being told Mr Chávez was “too busy” with campaign priorities.

Mr Chávez’s oil giveaways have been sharply criticised by opponents as wasteful for a country itself struggling to develop. “With all this poverty around us, to give away oil for free really is a crime,” says Mr Rosales.

According to official figures, the percentage of households living in poverty has fallen from 43 per cent in 1999 – at the start of the Chávez government – to 34 per cent in early 2006.

Mr Chávez has begun accusing Mr Rosales of preparing protests to coincide with what he predicts will be allegations of electoral fraud.

Perhaps more sinister, the government has stepped up efforts to persuade public employees that to not re-elect Mr Chávez would be risky. A video leaked last week showed Rafael Ramírez, the energy minister, warning an auditorium packed with state oil company managers that employees who failed to show unswerving loyalty to “the red revolution” would be dismissed.

“A Bolivarian triumph in the elections will be conclusive,” Mr Chávez said this week. With Mr Rosales and Mr Chávez convinced of victory, the political virility of both men looks set to be put to the ultimate test.

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