Face-off: what a novel concept!

We’re not quite here…yet.

I’m officially petitioning for a moratorium on every sort of “we’re so screwed because it’s an uneven playing field” speak. All this fatalistic chatter is old and tired, and distracts us from focusing on the fun stuff that will make this election different. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, from a strictly candidate-centric perspective, the playing field is as even as it’s ever been.

For the past 13 years, every Venezuelan presidential race has been run against an incumbent who set the bar for undisputed campaigning prowess. Chávez on the stump was an intimidating behemoth, a master lesson on how the game is played. I doubt that any strategy session for any of Chavez’s challengers ever even bothered to run the whole “let’s-identify-his strengths-and-weaknesses-and-use-those-in-our-favor” approach. The opposition never shied away from attacking issues like law and order, the economy, and foreign policy, but it always struggled with the formidable task of checking Chávez.

That asymmetry is gone. Part of what’s fun about this Capriles/Maduro duel is that finally a real two-way dynamic is at play, where both candidates target and react to each other’s shortcomings as they chase swinging votes. Hell, they even acknowledge each other as worthy adversaries. That’s a first.

Chávez looked down on presidential races from his Olympian heights, immune to opposition attempts to discredit him. The only time he recognized the mere existence of his contenders was to put them down, and even then, candidates were never referred to by name. Not once did he entertain the preposterous idea of debating, for that would mean conceding putting himself on the same plane as his opponents, always out of the question. Águila no caza mosca. I ain’t lowering myself to your level.

Well, this weekend, Maduro did. Or, rather, he never was on another level to begin with.

In terms of style, his first “campaign” address, a weird hybrid of celebrating Chavez’ memory, running a Misiones roll-call, and self-congratulation over the UN’s 2013  Human Develpoment Index report, was a window into his conscious efforts to transition from yes-man to showman, from bureaucrat to executive, from employee to boss. He definitely took most of the basics from the Chávez 101 playbook. He chided a Minister for flubbing the broadcast, he made policy decisions on TV, interrupted the UN rep’s presentation to offer a personal anecdote, read a poem, and sporadically engaged in jolly call-and-response routines with the seated crowd.

But Maduro also felt the need to defend himself not once, but twice, from petty rumors. At one point, he devoted a good five minutes of cadena time to squash speculation that he had been using a teleprompter, and later even showed a slow-motion clip zooming in on Maria Gabriela Chávez hugging him, forensic proof that she never, in fact, dissed him during the funeral last Friday (we learned the hug lasted three seconds).

If I were his coach, I would give him an A for effort in Chávez 101, and a D+ in Politics 101. I need only reference the “I am not a crook” Nixon example to illustrate that defensiveness, in campaigning, is synonymous with self-incrimination (Quick: don’t think of an elephant!).

Capriles, on the other hand, held one of his first mass rallies in Mérida, an outdoor 20-minute speech delivered to a cheering crowd at nightfall. He was kind of doing the rockstar thing, and his fans were loving it. His message centered on unity of the Venezuelan people and on his crusade to champion truth over lies, concern over corruption. Peppered throughout were the new catchphrases, Nicolás, tú eres el problema, and the deliciously taunting Yo sé que tú me estás viendo, Nicolás.

At this point it’s all rhetoric. It works because people can sense that Chávez, in his time, wouldn’t have even bothered tuning in, but probably Maduro feels threatened enough to do so. If anything, it’s a shrewd way of raising the opposition’s self-esteem. Played well, it could built into a total shift in paradigm.

The real kicker, though, was Capriles’ warning that, given Maduro’s recent heartless devaluation, people should be wary of further attempts to cut social programs in the name of economic recovery, i.e., the Misiones. That’s right, he went there. “If you let my opponent win, he might take away your Misiones. They were never his to begin with.”

There’s been a dramatic shift in tone (perceived or real) when the opposition’s candidate is now using the government’s mother-of-all-arguments to demonize the new guard.

We’re just at the beginning of what will surely be an exhausting, month-long clash of ideas, values, and personal styles, run against the backdrop of Chávez’ enormous, contested legacy. The race will be stalked by the realization that Chávez’s shoes are just impossible for anyone to fill, and that opens up the arena for candidates to chose their own narratives, and to rely on their own strengths. That’s what gets people excited about elections.