BARINAS, Venezuela (AFP) - Mr Nicolas Maduro was speechless when Mr Hugo Chavez first told him he may have to carry on the Venezuelan leftist leader's legacy, but he now insists the "revolution is united" behind him.
The acting president, a veteran of Chavez's inner circle now hoping to succeed him in April 14 elections, described how his mentor handpicked him to lead the so-called "Bolivarian Revolution" in an exclusive interview with AFP.
"I never expected this. Never. But it was absolutely moving and surprising that a leader you love, and who you have always been loyal to, at one moment says: 'Look, I am going for an operation and there are three scenarios.
"One is that the operation does not succeed, the second is that it leaves me very frail, and in those two cases it is your turn. You must take charge,'" Mr Maduro said in a campaign-trail interview in the western city of Barinas.
Mr Maduro, 50, grew to know Mr Chavez as few others did and was one of the few people outside the late leader's family to accompany him during his long battle with cancer. He grows visibly emotional when he describes his late mentor.
A former bus driver and union leader, the tall and broad-shouldered Mr Maduro served as Mr Chavez's foreign minister and vice-president, and he denied that there was any rift within "Chavismo" since the president died on March 5.
"The reaction was unity. Now we truly have brotherly relations at a level that we never had," Mr Maduro said.
"The political-military directorate of the revolution is united by the same feeling of pain and love toward Chavez," he said. "And we all follow the orders of president Chavez, starting with me."
Mr Maduro voiced confidence that he can best the late leader's defeat of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles in last October's vote, when Mr Chavez won 55 per cent compared to 44 per cent for the Miranda state governor.
"I trust that people will go to the polls to vote for Maduro because we are like a family that lost its father," said Mr Maduro, who had a double-digit lead in recent opinion polls.
"The people have united because now it is everybody's responsibility to continue Chavez's legacy. I am in front, he left me at the head of a revolution, but the people know that I will move forward if they move forward.
"There is an awareness and we will have a victory that will break records," said Mr Maduro, who has also vowed to combat the country's soaring crime.
"In truth, we are ready to take on the presidency on April 15 with the people and the roadmap that he left us. Without me knowing, he prepared me in all the issues: oil, finance, international." Mr Maduro refuses to see himself as the incarnation of "Chavismo without Chavez," but he vowed that the late leader's brand of socialism would carry on in the oil-rich nation.
"There are many who are betting on the end of the revolution, but I believe that now world leaders know that the revolution has its own momentum.
"They recognize that we will have a big victory on April 14 and they know that in Venezuela, the only ones who can guarantee political, economic and energy stability is us, with Nicolas Maduro as president."
Mr Maduro, who would inherit a nation polarised after 14 years under Mr Chavez, said he would "deepen the dialogue with all sectors that want to work and debate."
"We have always worked with those who think differently than us. The intolerance and tension came from the right," said Mr Maduro, who is considered more of a conciliator than Mr Chavez despite his hardline campaign speeches.
The late president is casting a huge shadow over the election, with Mr Maduro constantly eulogising Mr Chavez in his speeches.
But the interim leader denied that the government - once driven by the charisma and personality of Mr Chavez - is unable to make decisions since the socialist president's death.
"We are making decisions and governing thanks to a collective leadership of the revolution," Mr Maduro said.
Mr Maduro is pushing the same agenda as Mr Chavez, vowing to consolidate the nation's independence, provide social welfare to the poor and maintain a high profile in a multi-polar world.
But a big concern for Venezuelans is the nation's runaway crime, after 16,000 people were murdered last year alone, according to official figures.
Non-governmental groups say the homicide rate is even higher than that.
Critics say Mr Chavez failed to act against violence.
"Overcoming violence is a priority. We want to build a peaceful socialist society, with very high levels of social equality," Mr Maduro said.
Mr Maduro appears more comfortable in his new role with every campaign appearance, with soaring rhetoric that emulates the bombastic speeches of his predecessor.
"I never imagined this. Sometimes I feel like I am imagining it, as if the absence of the comandante was just a nightmare," Mr Maduro said.
"I am neither an upstart nor do I desire personal power. In truth, we are militants in a cause and we never thought that Chavez could disappear."