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COLUMN ONE : At Eye of the Storm in Mexico : As chaos swirls across his nation, Ernesto Zedillo has been thrust into the role of presidential heir apparent. Many questions surround the reticent technocrat who was little known until two months ago.


MEXICO CITY — Ernesto Zedillo, the man most likely to become the next president of Mexico, was taking on one of his nation's toughest problems, the peasant uprising in Chiapas.

First, he met with the southern state's governor. Then he drove 50 miles of winding road to visit the bishop who had mediated between the rebels and the government--talks that collapsed after the March 23 slaying of Luis Donaldo Colosio, whom Zedillo succeeded as candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Zedillo twice addressed citizens of the violence-torn state from local radio stations. Under heavy guard, he paused for pictures at a town square that rebels had briefly occupied on New Year's Day. Then he flew back to the capital. Not a single public appearance was scheduled.

That visit a few weeks ago was vintage Zedillo. One task--Chiapas--checked off the list; no bold moves, no risks, no crowds.

That cautious approach has boosted the electrician's son from junior economic analyst to presidential candidate in 23 years. Ironically, it has also thrust a man whom friends and critics alike describe as orderly and disciplined into the center of the most chaotic period in six decades of Mexican history.

Besides the Chiapas rebellion and Colosio's assassination, the police chief of Tijuana and Guadalajara's cardinal have been killed in the last 11 months as battles between drug traffickers have become more frequent. Prominent businessmen have been kidnaped in broad daylight on busy Mexico City streets where people used to feel safe.

In reaction, an estimated $10 billion has poured out of the country so far this year, threatening to destabilize the peso and set off a new round of inflation.

At this crucial juncture in their history, Mexicans are being told to trust their country to a 42-year-old technocrat whose name most of them had never heard until just two months ago.

Mexicans knew so little about Zedillo when he was nominated March 29 that loyal activists rushing to party headquarters to show their support misspelled his name on their signs. Since then, he has campaigned dutifully and hard. But pressing the flesh does not come naturally to him.

Waving to a Mexico City crowd one last time from the running board of his gray Suburban, he swings himself into the passenger seat, straightening his zip-front jacket and running a brush through his wavy salt-and-pepper hair.

"People really like to get close," he explains sheepishly, straightening his gold wire-rimmed glasses.

But getting close to Ernesto Zedillo is not easy.

He has built a wall of reserve around himself on his way to the presidential nomination that now leaves him dependent on party machinery to run his campaign and beholden to that machine if he wins. Unlike most Mexican politicians, who tend to accumulate camp followers, he has kept his circle of advisers tight, substituting rather than adding supporters.

"As he climbed the ladder, it became more difficult for him to remain open," one longtime friend said. "Everyone wants to get close to him, and he has to manage his time."

Critics take a less benign view.

"He has moved up the ladder alone," said Jesus Martin del Campo, an official of the National Union of Educational Workers and a deputy for the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party. "He seems extremely isolated, in his own world."

Zedillo even prefers individual sports: racquetball while studying economics at Yale in the 1970s, tennis later as a promising young central bank official, and now cycling as a father of five. Because he has built his career by obeying the unwritten rules of Mexican politics--obedience and silence--no one is really sure what Zedillo will do if elected.

He leads no clear political or ideological movement; until his nomination he was just another member of the elite group of foreign-educated economists who have run this country for the last decade. At the time of Colosio's slaying, he was the candidate's campaign manager, succeeding as the ruling party presidential candidate thanks to the one vote that counts, that of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

His lack of recognition, his personal reserve and the sharp tenor voice that quickly grows hoarse addressing large crowds might, in many countries, leave Zedillo with as good a shot at the presidency as, say, a Paul Tsongas. But in Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) machine has elected the last 13 presidents, he is a virtual shoo-in this August, far ahead of his eight challengers in every national poll.

For its campaign rallies, the PRI is already filling Mexico City's domed Sports Palace with taxi drivers, farm workers and garbage collectors to cheer the candidate--or risk five days' suspension from work if they do not show.

And on pro-government television networks, Zedillo has shared memories of his impoverished childhood, promoting a Horatio Alger image to fill the void of information about himself.

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