10,000 gather to support Chavez challenger

VALENCIA, Venezuela — They range from wealthy businessmen to boisterous students and poor single mothers, jammed together 10,000 strong in a stadium, chanting "change is possible!" and shoving forward to greet the man who is challenging President Hugo Chavez's grip on power.

There's a problem, however: Leopoldo Lopez can't run for office.

Like many of Chavez's opponents, some of whom are in jail or have fled the country, Lopez is barred as a candidate because of a government corruption probe against him.

It's a tactic critics say Chavez uses to put his opponents' political ambitions on indefinite hold as he heads into next year's congressional elections and his own re-election campaign in 2012.

Chavez insists he is simply enforcing the law, and corruption in Venezuela is widespread.

Lopez, a former Caracas district mayor, says that if he can't run, he'll recruit those who can.

To unseat Chavez is a task widely seen as futile at present. But the mere fact that Lopez's efforts are resonating with ordinary Venezuelans shows that the democratic spirit still burns in the nation of 28 million.

Lopez, a youthful-looking 38, is crisscrossing the country wooing students, trade unionists and others with promising leadership skills. He hopes to mold them into a political movement for Venezuelans who are disenchanted with Chavez's decade-long rule, as well as with the elite who governed the country before him.

While Chavez's appeal is in his embrace of the poor, Lopez wants to capitalize on the growing frustration that an oil-rich country, busy taunting the U.S. and making far-reaching alliances with Iran and Russia, can't tame inflation and crime or deliver uninterrupted water and electricity.

"What we want is to build a new majority from the bottom up — not just through negotiations and agreements between elites," Lopez told The Associated Press. "It's a longer road, but for us, it's the only road that gives us possibilities of winning."