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Mexico's Outsider Looking Up

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hopes to win power by confronting the powerful. So far, his populist message is drawing crowds.

October 04, 2005|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

NUEVO LAREDO, Mexico — If leading presidential contender Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador wants to make good on his promise to stand Mexican politics on its head, he'll need a lot more supporters like Vicente San Miguel.

San Miguel was one of thousands of Lopez Obrador fans who cheered the former Mexico City mayor over the weekend as he toured violence-racked cities along the Texas border.

It was a surprising turnout: Opposing parties hold nearly every local, state and federal office in these parts.

"I don't follow politics much. I've never even voted," said San Miguel, a 35-year-old engineer who came to a Sunday morning campaign appearance. "But I really like this guy.

"I like his integrity and what he's done in Mexico City.... I told my dad, 'Make sure to wake me up.' I didn't want to miss this."

Like Mexican President Vicente Fox, whose victory in 2000 broke the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, Lopez Obrador hopes to win next year's presidential election with the promise of change. He also needs a large voter turnout to have a chance against the PRI's political machine.

So with no money to spend on TV or radio advertising and a pledge to refuse cash from special interests, Lopez Obrador plays the little guy standing up to the corrupt and powerful. He makes his appeals at gymnasiums, rented halls and on the back of Chevy pickups.

He scares a lot of Mexicans with his leftist talk about putting the poor first and paying monthly stipends to single mothers and the elderly.

But with half the country's 100 million-plus people living in poverty, there's a big market for what he's selling. If the election were held today, polls say he'd win.

During a low-budget caravan Sunday along Mexico's northeast border, Lopez Obrador preached humility, austerity and populism. He said he would decline presidential jets and fly commercial, end fat pensions for millionaire ex-presidents and lower prices for electricity, gasoline and natural gas.

He mocked high-ranking politicians who charge the government for medical treatments in the United States and promised to make them wait in line at public clinics like everybody else. He condemned stagnant wages that drive Mexicans to the United States, and promised tariff protections for farmers.

His support is not limited to the poor, many of whom came to his rallies in castoff clothing. His political base in Mexico City includes a mix of limousine liberals and working class.

And then there are upwardly mobile types such as San Miguel, who say they're lukewarm about Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party but inspired by a man who says he can save enough money ending corruption to build up the country.

"Fox shattered corruption into big pieces," he said. "This guy will finish the job."

That belief, in defiance of Mexican history and human nature, echoes one popular message on the black-and-yellow T-shirts being sold in the Lopez Obrador barnstorm: "Que nadie nos robe la esperanza." Loose translation: "They can steal everything but hope."

Supporters say there is reason to expect miracles from Lopez Obrador, given his humiliation of the political elite this past spring.

While still mayor, he was accused of disobeying a judge's order in a minor legal dispute. With the support of Fox, lawmakers voted to strip Lopez Obrador of his political immunity, solemnly intoning the rule of law, and, by coincidence, in effect barring him from running for president.

A million or so residents protested, and Fox stood down, dumped the attorney general and dropped the case like a hot rock. Lopez Obrador, who quit as mayor to campaign full time, relished retelling the story during campaign speeches over the weekend.

People five-deep pressed on him, reaching out to his hands and shoulders, holding babies and toddlers out to him, whispering messages and encouragement, giving hugs and kissing his cheek.

As soon as he stepped down from the white Chevy Sonora, people pushed to reach him until he stood at the lectern. Afterward, they would do the same until the door shut and the SUV pulled away.

At a street rally in Rio Bravo, people swarmed the Chevy as it inched forward to leave. Lopez Obrador reached out of the passenger seat to the crowds. He gave his handkerchief to Adelaida Presa Ruano, 33, who ran off screaming and waving it aloft. "I've got his hankie!"

That kind of adulation might be expected to rattle competitors. But PRI contender and former party President Roberto Madrazo said Monday that there were 32 million undecided voters, nearly as many as cast ballots in 2000. The next president will be the one who wins the presidential debates and has the best ideas, he said.

"I can't see a winner now," Madrazo said. "At this moment, the surveys are not reliable."

The PRI primary is scheduled for mid-November, and Madrazo faces a strong challenge from Arturo Montiel, who just ended his term as governor of Mexico state.

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