AMACUZAC, Mexico — In his bid to win this Sunday's presidential election, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador can count on a secret weapon: the yellow dune buggy stuffed with campaign fliers that volunteer activist Raul Esquivel drives to the rural hamlets surrounding this town in south-central Mexico.
The senior citizens of Mexico City are Lopez Obrador's secret weapon too. They clip out newspaper articles to make their own campaign fliers, and write songs about their hero that they'll sing to anyone who will listen.
For two years Lopez Obrador and his supporters have been preparing for this moment: the homestretch of a campaign in which thousands of grass-roots volunteers and a seasoned party apparatus have the chance to make history and bring the left to power in Mexico for the first time.
Official campaigning came to a close Wednesday, in accordance with Mexican election law, with Lopez Obrador holding a narrow lead over conservative Felipe Calderon in most of the latest polls. With the race so tight, getting out the vote could make all the difference, election observers say.
Lopez Obrador and his Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, are counting on people power to carry them to victory over the better-funded campaign of Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, whose big-media buys more closely mirror U.S. campaign tactics.
"There was a time when all the PRD did was get people to fill up the plazas for rallies," said Gumercindo Toledo Diaz, a longtime party activist in Morelos state, which includes Amacuzac, a rural municipality with about 18,000 residents. "But those people don't all vote. We've learned that you win by getting people to the polls on election day."
Of the three major parties vying in the election, the PAN has the smallest network of grass-roots organizations.
PAN leaders believe a massive, last-minute media buy will sway the estimated 10% to 15% of voters who remain undecided. At least three television spots this week warned voters of a financial meltdown should Lopez Obrador be elected.
But the PAN is not ignoring the impoverished masses, either. In rural Mexico, the party has counted on the network of support built by Calderon campaign manager Josefina Vazquez Mota, who was secretary of Social Development under President Vicente Fox. That Cabinet position gave her access to innumerable contacts among rural leaders.
"Campaigns are like wars -- you start them from the air, but you win them on the ground, with infantry," said pollster Maria de las Heras, whose survey for the Mexico City newspaper Milenio gave Lopez Obrador a lead of 5 percentage points last week. "Calderon is the best in the air, but he has the weakest infantry.... The PRD is winning the ground war."
At least on paper, the best ground operation still belongs to the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. During seven decades in power, the PRI perfected the system of "voter coercion," in which gifts, cash payments and threats of aid cutoffs cajoled poor people into casting votes for the ruling party.
But after its umbilical to federal coffers was snipped by the election of the PAN's Fox in 2000, the PRI found its influence had faded rapidly in many areas of the country. The PRI candidate this year, Roberto Madrazo, lags behind in third place under the taint of corruption charges.
"The PRI is betting its traditional structures will bring votes, but they don't control those structures like they used to," said Dan Lund, a Mexico City pollster. Last week, a federation of 30 unions that once was a bulwark for the PRI endorsed Lopez Obrador.
In Amacuzac, where the PRI controls the local government, residents say election eve or election day presents have been a local tradition, and the PAN appears to have stepped into the gift-giver role. The party organized a big lunch recently in Amacuzac.
"Everyone went to that," said Catalina Estrada Delgado, a 47-year-old grandmother and undecided voter in Cajones, a rural community of about 1,000 people within the Amacuzac municipality. In the poverty-stricken region, few people can afford to turn down a freebie.
"They fool us because we're innocent like children," she said. "If they give us some candy, we sell them our votes."
Looking at a poster of Lopez Obrador hanging from a lamppost in the central square of Cajones, she said: "That guy doesn't give away anything. People will say, 'Why should we vote for him?' "
Moments later, the Lopez Obrador ground troops rolled into town. The two dozen activists included Esquivel, who earns his living as an electrician; his wife, Maria Elena Caspeta; a onetime California cherry picker named Ricarda Bahena; and Ana Laura Castillo, a 27-year-old single mother who brings her 5-year-old daughter.
The activists opened the trunk of the yellow dune buggy, took out stacks of fliers and posters and got to work. Bahena said she was a true believer in the PRD's campaign slogan, "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First."