MEXICO CITY — Before the sun has risen, while most public officials still slumber, a 51-year-old gap-toothed politician departs his modest flat and is driven in a late-model compact to City Hall. There, a pack of yawning journalists waits in a windowless room. At 6:35 a.m., one of them suddenly barks: "He's coming!"
In strides Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, mayor of North America's largest city, possibly Mexico's next president and unquestionably this nation's man of the moment.
He yells a good-natured "Good morning, cheer up!" to the heavy-lidded reporters, who try to grill him on how his administration's new rapid bus system has snarled a major thoroughfare. The mayor -- crisp in a charcoal suit and natty orange tie -- smoothly rebuffs them. He hails the mass transit as a bargain for taxpayers and a boon for the elderly, who ride for free. "It's getting better every day," he says with his trademark smile, adding, "This is a city that keeps its promises."
This daily predawn jousting between Lopez Obrador and journalists is just one more demonstration of why the shopkeeper's son from the poor state of Tabasco is wildly popular among working people, loathed by many of the elite and a force to be reckoned with heading into next year's presidential election.
On Friday, he will step down as mayor to campaign full time for the presidency. A lock to win the nomination of his Democratic Revolution Party and leading all potential rivals in opinion polls, he has tapped into growing public discontent with free-market policies that have failed to cure Mexico's economic ills.
His remedy is to expand anti-poverty programs to help Mexico's most vulnerable, build big-ticket public works projects to boost employment and halt the privatization of key state industries that has further concentrated wealth in a few hands.
Such policies have earned him unflattering comparisons to Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's fiery leftist strongman, whose tumultuous presidency has been punctuated by massive strikes and violent protest that have riven his nation along class lines.
But that shorthand doesn't accurately convey Lopez Obrador's mixture of populism, pragmatism and personal asceticism.
Millions of ordinary Mexicans identify with him. Lopez Obrador is a widower and father of three with a Phil Donahue-esque thatch of gray hair, and his very name comes from the Spanish verb "to work." The mayor cut bureaucrats' salaries and perks -- starting with his own -- redirecting tax money to pensions for the elderly, school supplies for youngsters and infrastructure such as the new Metrobus system.
"He thinks about the poor instead of about getting rich," said Patricia Rodriguez Camacho, a disabled Mexico City resident who credits Lopez Obrador for her small stipend.
Opponents see the mayor as an insular demagogue, oblivious to criticism, whose spending binges would wreck Mexico's finances if attempted on a national scale. Mexico's tradedependent economy, they say, is inextricably linked with the outside world, particularly the United States.
Yet Lopez Obrador doesn't speak English, has rarely traveled abroad, is suspicious of globalization and favors Depression-era government spending to move Mexico forward in the 21st century. A political science major and career public servant, he lacks the business school education that had become de rigueur for Mexican presidents.
President Vicente Fox, who by law is limited to a single, six-year term, has warned the public to beware of "populist messiahs" as it prepares to choose the country's next leader. He has urged Mexicans to continue down the path of deregulation and free trade, policies that, he says, have helped turn their economy into the 10th-largest in the world.
But the fact that Lopez Obrador, a former indigenous-rights activist with a fondness for big government, is the front-runner to succeed Fox, a worldly former Coca-Cola executive, shows how disillusioned Mexicans have become with free-market solutions.
Similar frustrations have fueled the rise of left-of-center governments across Latin America in recent years, including in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela. The neoliberal formula of fiscal discipline, deregulation, privatization and free trade has failed to lift millions out of poverty.
Austerity measures have helped Mexico tame inflation and stabilize its peso, no small achievement given the country's experience of past devaluations that devastated millions of households. Yet economic growth in real terms has been virtually flat for two decades. The underground economy is the nation's primary job engine. Illegal Mexican immigration into the United States is at an all-time high, with an estimated 450,000 people a year leaving their homeland.
"You don't have populists just come out of the dust," said Bret Rosen, assistant vice president of Los Angeles-based Trust Co. of the West, which manages assets worth $5 billion in Latin America and other emerging markets. "There are reasons for it."