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Chavez's vote machine comes alive again

CARACAS, Venezuela — Socialist party activist Rodolfo Sanchez is all nervous energy as he mounts the impossibly steep streets of his impoverished hillside neighborhood. With days to go before Sunday's election to replace Hugo Chavez, it's his job to get out the maximum vote for the late president's hand-picked successor.

Sanchez chats with a microbus driver who will be part of a network of several dozen public transport vehicles designated to deliver nearly 5,000 people to polling stations. Each bus will have signs with the names of voting centers so people know which one to board.

Sanchez is just one cog in the vast, well-greased get-out-the-vote machinery Chavez built during 14 years in power. The man Chavez tapped to succeed him, Nicolas Maduro, had plenty of practice fine-tuning it over the years as a trusted lieutenant.

Now, Maduro is interim president and counting on the machinery, along with powerful, pervasive state media, to compensate for votes the ruling party is expected to lose over disappointment with double-digit inflation, food shortages, worsening power outages and rampant kidnapping and murder. The latest polls favor Maduro but indicate his lead has narrowed.

Brigades of civil servants and recipients of government largesse are allegedly pressed into the electoral army. There are motorcycle bands, soup-kitchen and day-care mothers and an untold number of state employees who openly campaign.

Across the nation, government vehicles cruise streets blasting salsa music and distributing campaign literature. Campaign billboards festoon the roofs of government buildings.

The vote-impelling army officially numbers 200,000, but with nearly 2.7 million state employees is likely far higher. In October, it helped raise voter turnout to an impressive 81 percent from 75 percent in Chavez's 2006 presidential victory.

Cynthia Arnson of the Woodrow Wilson think tank in Washington, D.C., calls the ruling socialists' get-out-the-vote efforts atypical for a democracy.

"Maduro can draw on a Chavista base that has received huge benefits from the state and can be mobilized quickly, and there has been a complete blurring of the resources of the state with the resources of the campaign," she said. "It's not just the party machine. It's the entire apparatus of the state than can be deployed."

The grassroots Chavista get-out-the vote structure is called "One for 10:" Participants are responsible for getting 10 people to the polls.