CARACAS // With the Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, recovering from cancer surgery in Cuba, his designated heir, Nicolas Maduro, has been spotlighting his own leadership in case of an early presidential vote, observers say.
"Today, Maduro is completely different from when he was just the foreign minister. He is the vice president but he is also the hand-picked successor [of Chavez] and the de facto acting president," said Luis Vicente Leon, who leads the Datanalisis pollster.
Since Mr Chavez headed to Cuba on December 10 for a fourth round of surgery since having cancer diagnosed last year, Mr Maduro has worked on honing his skills as a high-profile leader in his own right in this Opec member state that is sitting atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.
Mr Maduro has lashed out at the opposition Chavez-style - on national television. He has combatively pledged to fight to defend the socialist revolution that Mr Chavez launched.
"I'm sorry I have voice trouble, from working so much these days, and after a cold I had that I am not over," Mr Maduro admitted at a ceremony he presided over on Friday, swearing in pro-Chavez governors from three Andean states.
Mr Chavez, who was re-elected in October, has picked Mr Maduro to fill in should his cancer make it impossible him to be sworn in as president for a new term on January 10.
The Venezuelan leader urged his party to support Mr Maduro in the event of an early presidential election should he be unable to return to power.
Mr Maduro, 52, a former bus driver and union activist, "needs to validate his leadership, because it could in the near future be an issue in a political campaign", Mr Leon said.
Carmen Beatriz Fernandez, the director of DataStrategia, a consultancy, said Mr Maduro had played a prominent role at swearing-in ceremonies, and in speeches had "taken on the tone of someone who is on the campaign trail".
"He has been anointed as Chavez's heir, and now he is taking up that role actively. He is preparing himself for a presidential election in the near future," she said.
Yet the vice president still feels the need to tread carefully on the issue of taking over the helm.
"I am just a vice president. We have a president who is on duty and his name is Hugo Chavez Frias," he shouted to supporters in Tachira.
Mr Leon said that Maduro had dropped his once "moderate" profile to make heavy use of words such as "bourgeoisie" and "imperialism", references to Mr Chavez's twin foes -wealthy Venezuelans and the United States - which he often used as scapegoats to fire up crowds of mostly poor supporters.
"Maduro used to look much more moderate, calmer, but now he seems to be imitating Chavez's role, and trying to be more belligerent," Ms Fernandez said.