CATIA LA MAR, Venezuela — As Sunday's presidential election draws near, Nicholas Maduro is turning the insults of those who belittle him into campaign props.
In fact, Maduro's political foes may be unwittingly helping the man Hugo Chavez tapped as his successor emerge from his mentor's enormous shadow and build an image of his own.
To be sure, Maduro still constantly invokes the socialist Chavez, who died of cancer March 5. One website, madurodice.com, even counts the mentions. It's up to nearly 7,000 since early December.
But sprinkles of brand-new Maduro symbolism are starting to appear at campaign appearances, alongside the sea of Chavez T-shirts, dolls and billboards.
Take Maduro's past a bus driver, which backers of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles have ridiculed.
At one rally this week, Maduro aides handed out cardboard models of a bus showing him smiling behind the steering wheel. Street graffiti has sprung up showing Maduro, hand on the wheel.
Maduro, Chavez's longtime foreign minister, also laughed it off when opponents started calling him a "big plantain," a common Venezuelan insult for tall, bumbling oafs.
Maduro, who towers over nearly everyone, pulled out a plantain during a rally Tuesday in the coastal state of Vargas. Smiling broadly, he slowly peeled it and took a big bite.
The crowd cheered.
One man jumped up and down while frantically waving his own plantain.
At other rallies, some women have started sporting fake black mustaches, like Maduro's real one.
The interim president also has turned to self-mocking on the little bird issue.
The opposition derided him last week after he claimed Chavez's spirit appeared to him in the form of a little bird that flew around his head inside a wooden chapel.
Maduro now begins speeches with convincing imitations of a chirping bird.
On Tuesday, he even wore a straw hat topped with a fake canary.
His backers, who probably include not just a few bus drivers, love it.
Just as they loved the folksy way Chavez created his own near-religious cult.
Christopher Toothaker on Twitter: http://twitter.com/ctoothaker