With 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 handpicked successor (of Chavez) and the defacto acting president," said Luis Vicente Leon, who leads the Datanalisis pollster.
Since Chavez headed to Cuba on December 10 for a fourth round of surgery since he was diagnosed with cancer in 2011, Maduro has worked on honing his skills as a higher-profile leader in his own right in this OPEC member sitting atop the world's largest proven oil reserves.
Maduro has lashed out at the opposition, Chavez-style, on national television. And he has combatively pledged to fight to defend the socialist revolution that Chavez, a leftist ex-paratrooper, 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," a weary-looking Maduro admitted at a ceremony he presided over on Friday, swearing in pro-Chavez governors from three Andean states.
Chavez, who was re-elected in October, has picked Maduro to fill in should his cancer make it impossible for the president to be sworn in for a new term on January 10.
The Venezuelan leader urged his party to support Maduro in the event of an early presidential election should he be unable to return to power.
The 50-year-old vice president, 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," Leon said.
DataStrategia chief Carmen Beatriz Fernandez noted that Maduro has played a prominent role at swearing-in ceremonies, and in speeches has "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 added.
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.
Leon said that nevertheless Maduro has dropped his once "moderate" profile to make heavy use of words like "bourgeoisie" and "imperialism," references to Chavez's twin foes of wealthy Venezuelans and the United States, which he has 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," Fernandez said.
Meanwhile, on Saturday, National Assembly speaker Diosdado Cabello urged Venezuelans Saturday not to be fixated of the date of January 10 when Chavez's searing-in ceremony to a third term is scheduled to take place.
Responding to multiple queries about what would happen if Chavez, 58, fails to show up, Cabello insisted that "the date of January 10 does not determine the president-elect's absolute absence."
According to the speaker, if intervening circumstances prevent the president from showing up on that date, the constitution allows him to be sworn in before Supreme Court justices.
And, Cabello added, the constitution "does not say when and where" this kind of inauguration should take place, giving some currency to rumors that the justices could be flown to Havana, if Chavez were unable to return to Caracas.
"Commandante Hugo Chavez will continue to be our president," the speaker concluded.
The face of the Latin American left for more than a decade and a firebrand critic of US "imperialism," Chavez asserted before embarking on his arduous re-election campaign earlier this year that he was cancer-free.
But he was later forced to admit he had suffered a recurrence of the disease. He returned to Cuba, a key Venezuelan ally, for surgery and follow-up treatment.
Venezuela has never said what type of cancer Chavez has, nor which organs are affected, but doctors removed a tumor from his pelvic region last year.
Maduro said he had been told by prosecutor Cilia Flores, who had just returned from Havana and had been in contact with the Chavez family, that "the president's recovery is consolidating with every passing day."
But the remarks suggested that, for one reason or another, the Venezuelan number two has not had direct telephone conversations with Chavez.
A medical report made public by the Cuban government on Thursday said Chavez was going through a "gradual stabilization process" after suffering a respiratory track infection, which was now "being treated and controlled."