By Gustavo Palencia
TEGUCIGALPA, Oct 23 (Reuters) - The candidate of Honduras' ruling National Party has taken a wafer-thin lead over the wife of ousted President Manuel Zelaya a month before a presidential election, but the gap is so small they are statistically tied, a poll showed on Wednesday.
Juan Hernandez, head of Honduras' Congress, now has 28-percent support, compared with 27 percent for 54-year-old Xiomara Castro, according to the CID Gallup poll published on the Telenoticias 5 television channel.
The pollster's previous survey in September had given Castro 29-percent support and Hernandez 27 percent, in what is shaping up to be a tight race to lead the violent Central American state, the country with the world's highest murder rate.
Castro, who was catapulted into the spotlight after a 2009 coup when she led protests against Zelaya's ouster, is running on a toned-down version of her husband's leftist populism.
Many see Zelaya, whose removal triggered a deep political crisis, as the power behind Castro's candidacy. At rallies, supporters often cheer more for him than for his wife.
The election campaign has been dominated by debate over how to tackle the drug war, a major cause of the country's high crime rate. Mexican cartels have invaded the country, using it as a staging point for moving large quantities of South American cocaine to the United States.
An average of 20 people are murdered every day in the country of around 8.5 million people, giving it a stunning homicide rate of more than 85 for every 100,000 people in 2012.
Castro is the candidate for the Liberty and Refoundation Party Zelaya founded. It is a coalition of leftist politicians, unions and indigenous groups.
She and her husband want to create a community police force to tackle the violence, while Hernandez wants a newly installed military police force to work alongside the army.
Outgoing President Porfirio Lobo is constitutionally barred from running again after serving a four-year term.
Honduras was plunged into a constitutional crisis when the Supreme Court ordered Zelaya's ouster. Congress endorsed the ruling, accusing him of violating the constitution.
Zelaya came to power in 2006 as a conservative but shifted to the left under the influence of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. His presidency came to a premature end in 2009 when he proposed a referendum to amend the constitution, a move interpreted by opponents as a bid to seek a second term.
Hours before the proposed referendum, soldiers bundled him into a plane and shipped him to Costa Rica where he spent a few months before returning to Honduras and setting up shop in the Brazilian embassy. U.S. President Barack Obama denounced the ouster as a coup.
Hernandez, 45, has steadily clawed back ground in recent months ahead of the Nov. 24 vote. In May, a CID Gallup poll gave him 18 percent of the vote versus 28 percent for Castro.
The latest poll was conducted in 16 of Honduras' 18 departments from Oct. 9-15, and surveyed 1,550 people of voting age. The poll has margin of error of two percentage points. (Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by David Brunnstrom)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.