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California and the West

Mexican Candidate Vows to Push for Open Border

Politics: Vicente Fox, the leading opposition contender in Mexico, makes a campaign swing through California hoping expatriates will influence vote back home.


BAKERSFIELD — To the blare of mariachi music, Mexico's leading opposition candidate brought his presidential campaign to California on Sunday, promising to press for unrestricted entry of Mexican workers to the United States.

Vicente Fox, regarded as the first presidential candidate who could break the 71-year lock on power of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, vowed a more aggressive policy to assist Mexicans in the United States.

"I will be the president of all Mexicans--those in the country and those Mexicans outside the country," Fox told about 300 cheering supporters at Sam Lynn Ball Park in this major agricultural hub.

Fox's stop in Bakersfield--along with a later appearance at a Cinco de Mayo festival in Fresno--was part of the most extensive U.S. campaigns ever conducted by Mexican presidential candidates.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the aspirant of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, is set to begin his two-day U.S. campaign in Los Angeles today.

The swings by Cardenas and Fox, of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, illustrate the growing role of U.S.-based Mexicans back home. While Mexico does not permit absentee voting from abroad, candidates believe the Mexican immigrants in the United States have broad influence over their hometowns, which receive $6 billion a year in remittances.

Fox, a charismatic former governor of central Guanajuato state, was greeted in Bakersfield by a mariachi band, farm workers waving Fox flags and local officials who proclaimed an official Vicente Fox Day. The crowd at the Fresno event was far larger, numbering several thousand.

The imposing, 6-foot-5 candidate, wearing his trademark cowboy boots and a grapefruit-sized Fox belt buckle, emphasized his admiration for Mexican immigrants--who for decades were often dismissed as traitors by officials back home.

Fox offered an array of promises: to give the vote to Mexicans abroad, to make money transfers cheaper, to guarantee health care for U.S.-based Mexican immigrants. And he brought up the ultimate dream of many Mexicans: free access to seek the relatively well-paying jobs across the border. "We'll use all our persuasion and all our talent to bring together the U.S., Canadian and Mexican governments so that in five to 10 years, the border is totally open to the free movement of workers," said Fox, speaking in Spanish from a platform flying U.S., Mexican and California flags.

There has been no indication that the U.S. government would agree to such a plan. Bilateral talks on a far less ambitious program, to provide more visas for Mexican workers, have gone slowly.

Still, it was significant that Fox was including Mexican immigrants among his constituents--whether his promises were realistic or not. He emphasized that his government would make them a priority more than any has before.

Fox has recently pulled nearly even with the candidate of the ruling party, Francisco Labastida, in polls. Cardenas trails a distant third. The July 2 election is regarded as the most hotly contested in recent Mexican history, in part because of a more open system and a decline in the fraud that was common in the past.

Many supporters watching Fox on Sunday said they intended to call relatives and friends back home and urge them to cast ballots for the candidate.

"Of course I will. It's very important. We need change," said Joel Martinez, a 32-year-old manager at a grape company, clutching a cellular phone in one hand and holding his small daughter with the other. Martinez came to the United States 10 years ago from Guanajuato.

Mary Dominguez, 65, who was born in Bakersfield to Mexican parents, prefers English to Spanish and has never talked politics with her relatives in Sonora state in northern Mexico.

Seeing Fox, however, sparked a new interest in Mexican politics.

"I'm going to be sure and call them and see how they vote," she said.

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