CARACAS (Reuters) - One month ago, Henrique Capriles was Venezuela's undisputed opposition leader, espousing a vision of dialogue and measured dissent towards the socialist government.
With a narrow but bruising presidential election defeat behind him and the next election not due until 2019, the state governor saw good government in opposition strongholds and grassroots work with the poor as the best way to build support.
Now, though, an explosion of protests has put President Nicolas Maduro under pressure and also exposed rifts inside the opposition as a rival to Capriles takes a more prominent role.
Leopoldo Lopez, a U.S.-educated economist who leads a radical wing of the opposition, defied Capriles' moderate approach to organize street resistance against Maduro - and has been jailed for leading the protests.
That has made him a 'martyr' for some in the opposition and wrong-footed Capriles, who backs the protesters' grievances but not their tactics as he seeks to preserve his own standing as the main anti-Maduro figurehead.
Capriles, 41, acknowledges tension within the opposition and is frustrated by Lopez but insists the main battle is against Maduro, who succeeded late socialist leader Hugo Chavez by being Capriles in an election last April.
"We must not be scared of differences. Unity can't be straitjacket," Capriles told Reuters in an interview at his office in Caracas. "Nicolas is desperate ... We're seeing the last kicks of a drowning man. He wanted to copy Chavez but he's a really bad copy, he has failed."
Focusing on the Capriles-Lopez split in the opposition would not only play into Maduro's hands but is also irrelevant given Venezuelans' grave day-to-day problems, he said.
"It's a false dilemma people are trying to create in the heart of the opposition. To try and turn the opposition debate into who is the leader makes a mockery of the historic moment the nation is going through."
"I've not fallen into this trap and I tell my followers that's not the problem. If the discussion centres on that, you can be sure that Maduro will escape intact."
A wiry and sports-loving lawyer from a well-to-do family, Capriles trounced other opposition aspirants in a 2012 primary to face a cancer-stricken Chavez. Although he fell short in the election later that year, he won the largest opposition vote ever against Chavez, 44 percent.
He then ran again last April after the socialist leader's death, losing by just 1.5 percentage points to Maduro in an election the opposition still says was rigged.
While Capriles retreated to his Miranda state governorship, Lopez and another radical opposition leader, Maria Corina Machado, urged opposition supporters onto the streets under the banner of "The Exit", meaning Maduro's departure.
Despite Capriles' disapproval of that tactic, sporadic protests began in the provinces and mushroomed after a large February 12 march in Caracas when three people were shot dead.
'WE ALL WANT CHANGE'
Since then, students have led the street protests, seizing the initiative from politicians but also leading to rock-throwing clashes with police and burning barricades that annoy many Venezuelans across the political spectrum.
Capriles is critical of the protest movement's radical leaders but he has attended several rallies and defends their grievances as legitimate.
"The protests right now have their own force and spontaneity. They're not led by anyone. The government is underestimating the discontent, and making out it's just one level of society," he said.
"We all want a change of government, but .. if this isn't organized, with concrete aims, it'll turn into frustration."
Though some students have been chanting Lopez's name and angrily questioning Capriles' moderate strategy, the governor remains hugely popular among rank-and-file activists.
He, too, has been warmly applauded by crowds on the streets, and has 4.2 million followers via Twitter, more than any other politician in Latin America. Though Lopez has stolen the limelight in dramatic fashion, analysts say Capriles still has the deepest backing among opposition voters.
The governor has, however, calibrated his own strategy so as not to appear weak. After shaking hands with Maduro in January during a meeting about crime, Capriles has rebuffed two invitations from the president for more dialogue in recent days.
"You can't fix this crisis with a photo op," he said, arguing that Maduro wanted to use him as a "dike" or buffer to stem popular anger over crime, product shortages, food queues at supermarkets, service failures, and alleged repression.
"How can you call a 'peace conference' in the middle of insults and threats? Nicolas spent most of his press conference (last Friday) insulting me. He said I was a drug-addict, lazy, work-shy. What path are they proposing to resolve the crisis? None. Everything is to justify their actions."
Criticizing the radical wing of the opposition movement too, Capriles said Lopez, Machado and student leaders had created false expectations among opposition supporters.
Their message about Maduro's imminent "exit" had also failed to connect with 'Chavistas' in poorer sectors, he argued, whose support would be crucial for any change.
"The 'leave now' slogan doesn't connect with the people in the barrios," he said, predicting however that the Maduro government was heading into "extinction" because it is unable to address the country's economic problems.
"Unless they change their policies 180 degrees, they are not going to fix the economy," he said, adding that Venezuela's statist model was the cause of inflation, shortages and hardship.
"In 10 months in power, everything they've done, far from fixing the economic crisis, has deepened it. It's the economic crisis that is behind the political crisis, have no doubt."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis and Kieran Murray)