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Politics Hard on Venezuelan Beauty

November 24, 1998

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Being a former Miss Universe was never enough for Irene Saez. She won acclaim as a local mayor and got reelected with a record 96 percent of the vote.

Then she set her sights higher and for a long time it looked like the 6-foot-1, strawberry blonde might be the first woman to become president of her country.

But with Venezuela’s presidential election less than two weeks away, Saez’s once soaring campaign is imploding. Sugary slogans, chaos among her staff and an alliance with a discredited political party have sent her plummeting from first place to fourth in polls.

Saez, 36, spent last week racing to meetings with political leaders and other candidates to plot last-ditch strategies for defeating the new front-runner, former coup leader Hugo Chavez.

Many of the rank-and-file in the Social Christian COPEI party want to drop the 1981 Miss Universe and throw their support behind a coalition candidate to oppose Chavez in the Dec. 6 race.

But Saez insists she’s in the race until the end _ a promise many analysts say may be hard to keep as election day approaches.

``I am not going to quit, nor will I be forced out,″ she told reporters last week. ``Irene will keep fighting for this country.″

In a nation that proclaims itself the beauty queen capital of the world, even fans of the Miss Venezuela pageant see Saez’s campaign as a mess.

``Irene should have stayed as a beauty queen and never gotten involved in politics. She’s very superficial and frivolous,″ said 18-year-old waitress Yusbely Peralta.

A poll released last week by Caracas-based Datanalisis showed Saez had 2.4 percent support, a breathtaking drop from the 36 percent she enjoyed in March, when she was the top contender.

Chavez, 44, a former army paratrooper who tried to overthrow the government in 1992, now has 49 percent support.

Saez rose to the top of the presidential polls partly because of her fame as a beauty queen. In the last two decades, Venezuela has produced four Miss Universes, four Miss Worlds and two Miss Internationals _ more than any other country.

But she also drew support because of her success as mayor of the well-heeled Chacao municipality in the capital, Caracas. ``Irene,″ as most people call her, cut crime, slashed budget deficits and spruced up public plazas.

She was seen as an honest and efficient politician, a rarity in oil-rich Venezuela. Her 1995 reelection was a landslide.

Chacao became ``a kind of model municipality,″ said political scientist Amalio Belmonte.

Casting her eye on the presidency, Saez crisscrossed the country and the world, meeting with Pope John Paul II.

COPEI, one of Venezuela’s two biggest parties, thought it could regain the presidency by backing her. Former president and COPEI leader Luis Herrera Campins courted her.

But the alliance was disastrous for Saez, whose support also was based on her independence from the discredited traditional parties many blame for squandering Venezuela’s oil wealth. She had been running as an independent with her own party, called IRENE.

More blunders followed. She came off to many as maudlin, speaking constantly of her love for ``my people″ and the need to ``humanize″ politics. Still, in recent months she replaced vague campaign slogans with actual policy talk, promising to balance the budget, improve tax collection and reduce Venezuela’s dependence on oil exports.

Saez’s campaign team became a revolving door of advisers. She attracted some of the best talent in Venezuela. But many soon quit, fed up with Saez’s lack of direction.

``Irene passes half her time constantly changing her clothes, her hairdo, her make-up. She hasn’t been able to come up with a single idea that could impress voters,″ columnist Andres Galdo wrote in El Nacional newspaper.

Meanwhile, Chavez has promised to fight corruption and mass poverty.

While Saez’s campaign may be coming to a merciful end, her political life probably isn’t over. Observers say she could rebound and run for governor or Congress in two years.

Even her detractors acknowledge she’s shown grit by staying in the presidential race.

``At the last moment we’ve discovered that she’s not only beautiful but also intelligent and a fighter,″ Galdo wrote in another column, adding that the next president should name her ambassador to the United States.

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