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Mexican Candidates Debate a 2nd Debate

Politics: Three top presidential hopefuls trade barbs in televised negotiations on event. Verbal brawl appears to deal setback to opposition's Fox.


MEXICO CITY — Mexico's three top presidential candidates tossed aside the country's tradition of stiff, Victorian campaigning on Tuesday and held a bizarre televised negotiation in which they appeared more like a dysfunctional family: bickering, trading insults and at times staring morosely into space.

The testy session was the culmination of several days of political warfare on a key issue in the campaign: debates.

The candidates were scheduled to hold their second presidential debate Tuesday night. Last weekend, however, negotiations on the event collapsed. Many blamed the breakdown on Vicente Fox, a charismatic presidential candidate who has surged in recent weeks to pose the most serious challenge to the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

Prodded by a television host, the candidates agreed to meet Tuesday afternoon to hammer out an agreement on the event. But the talks got off to a bad start after Fox insisted that they be held outside, in front of television cameras. The ensuing verbal brawl appeared to only hurt the challenger even more.

TV commentators called it a "historic moment." And perhaps it was: For a country in which the president was traditionally a near-sacred figure and politics conducted by men in dark suits giving stilted, flowery speeches, Tuesday's session was shocking.

The candidates mocked each other. All three stared into space for long periods, leaving national TV stations that broadcast the session live scrambling to find something to say about politicians saying nothing.

At one point, Fox, of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, of the center-left Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, verbally tussled like schoolboys over the best date for the debate.

"Today," Fox said.

"Friday," Cardenas said.

"Today," Fox insisted.

"Friday," Cardenas shot back.

It looked more like a "Saturday Night Live" skit than a meeting of aspirants for the nation's most hallowed office, analysts said.

"What's fascinating about this is it's the candidates themselves. It's not spinners," noted Denise Dresser, a political scientist based in Los Angeles who was here Tuesday. "There's no filter there any more. Now we're seeing the relative immaturity and inexperience of these men vis-a-vis the directness of the TV cameras."

For all its circus-like atmosphere, however, the session Tuesday appeared to inflict damage, especially on Fox. He insisted repeatedly that the debate be held that same evening, even though the other candidates and a national TV representative said it was not feasible.

Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, has ably used media to promote himself in the lead-up to the July 2 election. In contrast, Francisco Labastida, the PRI candidate, has been criticized as dull and unimpressive on television and was widely regarded as the loser of the first debate, held April 25.

"The strange thing is that the marketing expert, with so many resources, was seen as a very limited man," said political analyst Alfonso Zarate, referring to Fox. "That was the surprise."

Fox has won followers by casting himself as an anti-politician, using informal language and clothing. But his rigid stance Tuesday was sure to feed claims by rivals that he is a dangerous potential strongman.

In addition, he appeared to resort to political tricks, at one point brandishing a copy of a speech in response to the other candidates. Cardenas mocked Fox, saying, "I want to congratulate Vicente Fox on the speed with which he writes his speeches."

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