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ELECTION IN MEXICO

Leftist Comes Out Swinging, Regains Lead in Polls

Lopez Obrador, once staggered by attack ads from his conservative rival, gets a second wind after a lively debate and his own slick TV spots.

June 15, 2006|Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writer

MEXICO CITY — With a little more than two weeks before the July 2 election, new polls show that leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has retaken the lead from conservative free-market candidate Felipe Calderon after a barrage of TV ads accusing Calderon of helping his brother-in-law secure government contracts.

Calderon is campaigning as the so-called clean hands candidate, which makes the accusation -- and the attention it's getting here -- so delicious for Lopez Obrador supporters.

Calderon spent millions on aggressive TV and radio ads this spring painting Lopez Obrador as a shrill demagogue who would spend Mexico into ruin. The ads eroded support for Lopez Obrador while boosting Calderon into first place -- until this week.

On Wednesday, a Reforma newspaper poll showed Lopez Obrador in the lead for the first time in months, reflecting what other national surveys have found this week.

Calderon's ads compared Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez; one showed the former Mexico City mayor calling President Vicente Fox a "squawking bird." Lopez Obrador's campaign advocates the rebuilding of Mexico through subsidies to the poor and massive public works projects.

"The ad campaign against Lopez Obrador worked, but it was a bubble and the bubble burst," said Juan Pardinas of the Mexico City think tank Research Center for Development. "When the mud sticks, it eventually dries and falls off. Lopez Obrador is back where he was, more or less, before the negative ads."

Lopez Obrador's turnabout began with last week's nationally televised debate, and analysts are divided over whether it was genius or luck.

Most agree that National Action Party candidate Calderon, a lawyer and economist, won the debate against Lopez Obrador and Roberto Madrazo, the Institutional Revolutionary Party standard-bearer who has consistently run third in the polls.

But Lopez Obrador, of the Democratic Revolution Party, appeared calm and reasonable, a sharp contrast to the politically dangerous man portrayed in Calderon ads.

More important, the postdebate headlines sprang from a 15-second line delivered near the end of the two-hour face-off. It was a line that Lopez Obrador strategists said their candidate planned to use only if Calderon went on the offensive, which he did.

"I just want to say that I'm planning to hand over a file showing Felipe's brother-in-law, his troublesome brother-in-law, has a company that works for the government," said Lopez Obrador, adding that the firm received energy contracts while Calderon was Fox's energy secretary and didn't pay taxes on $2.5 billion in company revenue.

Calderon denied the charge, as well as having engaged in any wrongdoing during his eight-month stint in Fox's Cabinet. Repeated denials in the days that followed -- by Calderon and his brother-in-law, Diego Zavala -- failed to clear the air and have put the Calderon campaign on the defensive.

"You couldn't have asked more from a candidate in a debate," Pardinas said. "Create a good image and then throw some mud without getting your hands dirty."

Zavala said his company had renewed software contracts with Mexico's national oil company, Pemex, while Calderon served as energy secretary.

His firm, Hildebrando, purchased a company holding the contracts a month after Calderon took office in September 2003. The contracts were renewed in November.

Both men said there was nothing untoward about the transaction, and Calderon last week demanded that Lopez Obrador show proof of wrongdoing.

Campaigners for Lopez Obrador delivered a cardboard box of papers Friday to Calderon headquarters in a widely covered publicity stunt to back up the claim.

But the joke here is that the 400 pages of so-called proof probably mean they have none. A single incriminating page with Calderon's signature could send him to prison, but nothing of the sort has been delivered to federal prosecutors.

The brother-in-law bomb was dropped in front of 13 million TV viewers, only days before Mexico's attention was diverted by soccer's World Cup and a first-game victory Sunday by the national team.

TV watchers have since had dozens of chances to see Lopez Obrador repeat the accusations in slick ads, which all mention the "troublesome" -- incomodo -- brother-in-law.

The troublesome-relative label was made most famous here in the 1990s in the case of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's allegedly crooked older brother Raul. It is a phrase that reflects a long-standing belief that those in power share the spoils with relatives.

Federal authorities, meanwhile, are investigating the leak of confidential tax records from Zavala's firm to the Lopez Obrador campaign.

No one expects a resolution before the election. The Mexican judiciary seldom resolves such accusations with dispatch, if ever.

Besides, the issue is not so much corruption.

"This is about revenge," said Dan Lund, a Mexico City pollster.

*

Carlos Martinez and Cecilia Sanchez in The Times' Mexico City Bureau contributed to this report.

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