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By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's stridently anti-capitalist president, Hugo Chavez, has urged the rich to vote for him to prevent a "civil war," while his rival told the poor he will not scrap popular socialist welfare projects if he wins next month's election.
Chavez, 58, and Henrique Capriles, 40, face off in an October 7 vote for the presidency of the South American nation of 29 million people, which has the world's largest oil reserves and is a financier of leftist governments around the region.
Though Chavez leads the majority of Venezuela's best-known polls, Capriles' numbers have been creeping up in recent weeks and he is just ahead in a couple of them, leaving each side to believe it has a strong chance of winning.
Having made a political career of bashing the rich for all Venezuela's ills - and indeed the world's - the socialist Chavez told them in a campaign speech late on Sunday that they should back him if they want stability.
"The rich families have their families, fine houses, good vehicles, probably an apartment at the beach, properties and so on. They like to travel abroad for holidays," he told a rally.
"Does a civil war suit them? Not at all. It only suits the extreme, fascist right embodied by the loser. It is in the interests of the peace-loving rich for Chavez to win, and I invite them to vote for Chavez on October 7. Chavez guarantees peace, stability and economic growth."
Chavez does not use Capriles' name in public, routinely referring to him with the insulting epithet "majunche," which can be loosely translated as "loser," and insisting Capriles' supporters have violent plans to end socialism in Venezuela.
The opposition dismisses the president's frequent comments about possible civil war as irresponsible scaremongering, pointing out Chavez himself led a failed military coup in 1992.
Venezuela's richest are normally virulently anti-Chavez and decry the shrinking of the private sector, though some also maintain healthy businesses in partnership with the government.
The president remains immensely popular among Venezuela's poor, in part because of his own humble roots and folksy style, and also due to oil-funded welfare projects like subsidized food stores, and free healthcare and education.
In a campaign projecting his energy and attention to day-to-day problems, state Governor Capriles has been crisscrossing the country, visiting hundreds of towns and villages, especially in areas where support for Chavez is strongest.
In a message broadcast on private TV channels on Sunday night, Capriles tackled head-on one of the main fears of traditional Chavez supporters - that he will abandon the social "missions" that are the president's flagship policy.
"My commitment is to create new missions, keep the current ones and improve those which don't work," Capriles said, noting that as Miranda governor he ran a "Zero Hunger Plan" providing food for thousands, as well as improved schools and clinics.
A lawyer by training but a professional politician since his mid-20s, Capriles unexpectedly beat a heavyweight Chavez ally to win the Miranda governorship in 2008 and has won wide respect for his work there since.
Though U.N. data back the government's line that poverty has been reduced under Chavez, the opposition says he should in fact have achieved far more in terms of social welfare given the bonanza of oil revenues since he took office in 1999.
"A while ago, we proposed a Missions Law, so they do not depend on the government of the moment and reach all needy Venezuelans, irrespective of political colour," Capriles added.
Specifically, the subsidized Mercal food chain should be expanded to end long lines and offer greater variety, Capriles said, while slum clinics currently staffed by Cuban doctors should also be opened to local medics.
Venezuela's notoriously controversial and divergent opinion polls show the difficulty in predicting the October 7 vote, with supporters of both sides quickly jumping on any media that do.
Among the myriad public opinion companies, respected Datanalisis put Chavez ahead by 12 points in July. Another well-known pollster, Consultores 21, though, has Capriles just ahead.
On Monday, Capriles gave a major policy speech outlining the first actions that he would take if he wins.
As well as tackling runaway crime and a proliferation of weapons in society, Capriles promised to create 500,000 new jobs per year and raise the minimum wage 22 percent to 2,500 bolivars (363 pounds) per month.
He also vowed to reduce the number of bodyguards assigned to senior officials, and he accused the government of failing to investigate fully a recent explosion at Venezuela's largest oil refinery that killed 42 people.
"Will we ever know what happened there? Those accidents happen for a reason, for failures in something," Capriles said.
(Editing by Kieran Murray and Eric Beech)
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