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California and the West

Mexican Candidates' Visits Highlight California Clout

Politics: Presidential hopefuls Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, Vicente Fox hope appearances create ripples in homeland.


SACRAMENTO — In an unprecedented move, a top candidate in Mexico's presidential race transported his campaign Monday to the California Senate, pledging to preside over a peaceful democratic transition and urging the Mexican community to pour more resources into their homeland.

The speech by Vicente Fox reflected how Mexican politicians increasingly are courting both the state's government and its residents of Mexican heritage.

In another sign of cross-border politics, a second Mexican presidential hopeful stumped Monday in Los Angeles, holding festive rallies from Montebello to Olvera Street. That candidate, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, is running a distant third in most polls.

Both Fox and Cardenas are seeking to end the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Fox appears to have the best chance of doing so. A charismatic former Coca-Cola executive, the candidate of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, has surged in the polls in recent weeks, pulling even with PRI candidate Francisco Labastida.

On Monday, Fox sought support in California for the historic change he hopes to bring.

"I am here to tell the 18 million Mexicans that live in the United States that your mother country, which you still feel in your hearts and minds, will soon be in good hands. I am here to tell our Californian and other American friends and partners to not fear the coming democracy in Mexico," the 6-foot-5 candidate said Monday from the gilt-trimmed podium of the Senate.

He repeated his campaign promises to strengthen Mexico's economy so immigrants wouldn't need to cross the border seeking jobs. And he appealed to the Mexican community to give him a hand.

"In 1989, fresh from overthrowing Communist tyranny in Poland, Lech Walesa made an appeal to one of his nation's greatest resources: the 8 million Polish Americans and [Polish] Canadians, to help rebuild their shattered mother country. Today, I am here to do the same," Fox said, speaking in English to polite applause. He was the first Mexican presidential candidate to address the body.

Mexican immigrants have emerged as a prize in the July 2 presidential vote, although they are not allowed to cast absentee ballots. Their political importance lies in their broad influence in their hometowns, which together receive about $6 billion a year in remittances. To court such votes, the Mexican candidates are waging a virtual campaign in the United States--trying to persuade immigrants to influence their relatives back home.

In contrast to Fox, Cardenas spent the first day of his two-day California swing with regular folks rather than officeholders.

At times he was treated like a favorite visiting uncle. People drove from San Diego and Stockton to see him. They chanted his name. They told him, choking up, their hopes for their lives and for Mexico.

At El Rey Azteca restaurant in Montebello, supporters greeted the candidate as "Cardenas Presidente!" To the strains of the song "Juan Colorado," supporters dined on heaping plates of chicken, beneath colorful ceramic parrots and strings of vegetables.

"He is going to win," said Carmen Salinas-Aguirre of East Los Angeles. Using a Mexican phrase for a sure bet, she added: "This rice is already cooked."

Many supporters turned up at Cardenas' appearances with petitions, asking the candidate to assist poorly treated farm workers in the United States, to draw attention to Mexican migrants who die on the U.S. border and to help retired Mexican farm laborers recover lost pensions.

One such letter, written by a farm worker, was full of errors and despair.

"Here, we are working hard . . . but they pay us very little for the work that we do and instead of progressing we are more poor than in Mexico," it read.

Cardenas said he had come to the United States to ratify his commitment to the Mexican community. "The struggle they have to make their rights respected in every way . . . is the same struggle we're having in Mexico," he said.

Later that evening, about 250 people attended a rally in Olvera Street. There, the PRD honored several members of the local Spanish-speaking media for their coverage of human rights issues.

Cardenas is credited with pioneering the campaigning of Mexican candidates in the United States. He lost presidential bids in 1988 and 1994.

Like Fox, Cardenas also used his visit to send clear messages to the home audience.

Both candidates emphasized their concern about the rights of Mexicans abroad. Such migrants, once virtually ignored by Mexican politicians, have swelled to such a large group that they are a priority for the Mexican public and government. President Ernesto Zedillo visited Sacramento and other parts of California last year in a demonstration of how Mexican immigrants have emerged as a domestic issue.

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