February 1, 2006

Mexico’s cowboy president guns for place in history

By Frank Jack Daniel

VILLAHERMOSA, Mexico (Reuters) - He has swapped his cowboy
boots for soft shoes and his bushy mustache has grayed, but on
his whirlwind tours of Mexico, President Vicente Fox looks
little changed from the candidate he was six years ago.

Crisscrossing the nation in his presidential jet, Fox stops
off in steamy tropical cities and dusty desert towns to promise
better services and boast of his achievements since he
dramatically ended 71 years of one-party rule in 2000.

Now in his final year as president, Fox is spending much of
his time on tour, trying to seal his place in history as the
man who brought Mexico democracy. An expensive government media
campaign is also highlighting his successes.

Critics claim the president, who was always an impressive
campaigner, is at it again, openly supporting his conservative
ruling party's candidate in the July 2 election to replace him,
and in violation of Mexico's strict election rules.

Fox has failed to deliver on promises of rapid growth but
the straight-talking rancher and former Coca-Cola executive
insists that record low inflation and fiscal discipline have
finally put Mexico's economy on solid ground.

"It's only possible to put these programs in place when
there is economic stability," he told patients and nurses as he
announced new spending on schools and hospitals on a recent
swing through Villahermosa, capital of oil-rich Tabasco state.

At another stop in the central city of Aguascalientes, Fox
warned against "populism and demagoguery," saying uncontrolled
public spending only gives people "a few hours of happiness and
they continue to suffer for the rest of their existence."

That is the kind of rhetoric that upsets his opponents, who
see in it a deliberate attempt to boost Felipe Calderon, the
presidential candidate of Fox's National Action Party.

"It is very important that Fox not be Felipe Calderon's
cheerleader," said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left-wing
former Mexico City mayor who leads Calderon in opinion polls.


Third-ranked candidate Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional
Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which Fox ousted in 2000, is
demanding the electoral institute rein in the president.

"The institute's hand should not tremble in calling the
president's attention, in giving him a yellow (penalty) card,"
Madrazo said at a recent rally.

A bad back has forced Fox to put away his trademark cowboy
boots but he still knows how to work a crowd. Most Mexicans
like him and his approval ratings remain high even though his
government is widely seen as ineffective and has failed to
create the millions of new jobs he promised.

Barred under the constitution from seeking reelection, Fox
has dropped efforts to push deadlocked reforms through Congress
this side of the election. That gives him more time to hit the
road to promote his health, housing and anti-poverty programs.

"The opposition and others say it is electoral. Not at
all," Fox told Reuters, saying he is traveling hard simply to
make sure the programs are fully implemented on the ground.

"All the pieces are in place from this government's work.
Now it's my job to ensure that we harvest everything that we
have sown."

He insists he will not favor any of the presidential
candidates, and some analysts say he is more concerned about
how Mexico remembers him than keeping his party in power.

"It is already written that he beat the PRI, but he is very
worried that his image, and that of his government, has
deteriorated a lot," said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at
the think tank CIDE in Mexico City.

Still, many ordinary Mexicans see a political campaign in
Fox's presidential tours.

"Everything is there that a candidate does," said Blanca
Castillejos, who was visiting a sick brother at the hospital in
Villahermosa when Fox arrived. "Obviously, it's not for himself
now, it's for the next one."

(Additional reporting by Kieran Murray and Alistair Bell)