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Candidates Try to Close Gap in Mexico Debate

With the front-runner absent and his lead shrinking, his main rivals for the presidency seize the opportunity to attack each other.

April 26, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — In the hours before the first presidential debate Tuesday, people wondered who the winner would be -- one of the four politicians on the stage, or the empty lectern.

Political analysts agreed that the empty lectern would prove a formidable opponent. It was the space reserved for the man who until recently was the undisputed front-runner, former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party, known in Spanish as the PRD.

"The candidate of the PRD didn't come to this debate because he doesn't have any viable proposals," center-right candidate Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, or PAN, said as the debate opened. "He preferred to turn his back on you."

That statement was one of the few to directly address the absence of Lopez Obrador, the only candidate on the ballot who chose to skip the debate, the first of two before the July 2 election.

Instead, Lopez Obrador's two top opponents in the campaign, Calderon and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, spent much of the debate attacking each other.

"Calderon, you're a good little boy when it comes to oratory ... but reality is something different," Madrazo said. Among other things, he accused Calderon of enriching himself with a loan from a government bank that he was running.

It remained unclear Tuesday whether the absence of the leftist candidate in the debate would hurt his chances with voters.

Lopez Obrador's decision to skip the debate seemed like a smart one a few weeks ago, when polls showed he enjoyed a lead at or near double digits in percentage points.

"Now, with the polls so close, it could be a serious mistake," said Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a political analyst here.

The PRD candidate built his lead with large doses of charisma and by retelling the legend of his record as this city's mayor, a post he held until last year.

Lopez Obrador built a double-decker freeway and established pensions for seniors. An opposition attempt to have him impeached on obscure corruption charges backfired, and no country embraces an underdog victor quite like Mexico.

But this month, the modern multimedia campaigning that has taken root in Mexico chipped away at the image of Lopez Obrador. A poll released Tuesday by the firm Parametria showed Lopez Obrador with a 2-point lead. Another by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma showed Calderon, with President Vicente Fox's PAN, leading for the first time, by 3 percentage points.

The debate was seen as a golden opportunity for Calderon, a 43-year-old technocrat with limited experience in elected office.

"Felipe Calderon is the candidate with the most modest political career," said Silva-Herzog. "His campaign has been built on a decidedly negative strategy. People still don't know who he really is."

For weeks, Calderon's campaign has hammered the front-runner with a series of ads that suggest a Lopez Obrador presidency could bring economic collapse. One talks of his extensive public spending as mayor, and ends with a collapsing brick wall.

Another Calderon ad likened Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and suggested that the PRD candidate could become a populist demagogue. "Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico," one ad intoned. Election officials found that the language in some of the ads violated campaign laws and they were withdrawn.

Still, observers here say Calderon's ads have succeeded in turning attention away from Lopez Obrador's central campaign theme: that a decade of economic reform, including a free trade accord with the United States and Canada, has failed to improve the lives of millions of Mexicans.

And Calderon has managed to insert doubt about whether Lopez Obrador is too radical to be president.

Gerardo Fernandez Norona, a spokesman for Lopez Obrador, said Calderon's campaign was attempting to "vilify" the leftist candidate.

Lopez Obrador has said he will participate in the second and final debate, on June 6. He agreed to a single debate because his opponents were originally proposing half a dozen.

"The idea was to drown out our campaign with debates, but we stuck to our position," Fernandez Norona said.

The Lopez Obrador campaign unsuccessfully petitioned Mexico's election authorities to remove the empty lectern from Tuesday's debate.

"It's a ridiculous ploy and insulting to everyone's intelligence," Fernandez Norona said.

Two other candidates participated in the debate Tuesday: Patricia Mercado of the Alternative Social-Democratic and Farmers Party, and Roberto Campa of the New Alliance Party.

Calderon, rather than abusing the absent candidate, tried to present himself as the only politician who could guarantee Mexico's economic stability. But when Madrazo attacked his ethics, Calderon responded by producing a black-and-white picture of a Miami apartment Madrazo allegedly had purchased with bribes received as a senator and governor.

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