April 26, 2006

Mexican conservative on the rise in election battle

By Kieran Murray

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The conservative ruling party
candidate in Mexico's presidential election is on a roll after
a strong performance in the first televised debate of the
campaign and a string of mistakes by his main leftist rival.

Without delivering any knockout blows, Felipe Calderon won
the debate on Tuesday night by laying out his policy proposals
and staying calm.

He was helped by the refusal of leftist candidate Andres
Manuel Lopez Obrador to join the debate. An empty chair was set
out on the stage to mark Lopez Obrador's absence and it was
widely seen as another blow to his campaign.

Lopez Obrador chose not to join the debate so as not to
risk his lead, which at one point stood above 10 percentage
points. His support has slumped in recent weeks, however, and
he is now locked in a tight race with Calderon.

An opinion poll in the respected newspaper Reforma on
Wednesday showed 43 percent of people thought Calderon won the
debate, compared to just 18 percent who said third-placed
candidate Roberto Madrazo came out ahead.

Other newspapers and analysts agreed Calderon, of the
ruling National Action Party, put in the best performance and
that Lopez Obrador hurt his own cause in the July 2 election by
staying away.

"We did very well last night," a jubilant Calderon said on
Wednesday. "I know I won the debate."

He also pointed to a separate election poll this week that
showed him with 38 percent support among probable voters, ahead
of Lopez Obrador for the first time.

"Even before the debate, I was moving up strongly and Lopez
Obrador was falling strongly," he said. "The debate was one
more step toward the presidency."


Calderon is promising voters he will create more jobs,
reform Mexico's inefficient energy industry and maintain the
conservative fiscal policies of President Vicente Fox, whose
election victory in 2000 ended 71 years of single-party rule.

Lopez Obrador, the candidate from the Party of the
Democratic Revolution, is pledging to cut poverty by spending
heavily on welfare programs and create jobs with big
infrastructure projects.

Leftist and populist leaders have taken power in several
other Latin American nations in recent years and a Lopez
Obrador victory could mark a major defeat for the free market
reforms model followed across the region in the 1990s.

That seemed very likely just a few weeks ago but Lopez
Obrador has since hurt himself by attacking Fox, who remains
popular, and by refusing to enter the debate.

Aggressive campaign ads from rival campaigns also put the
leftist on the defensive. He had to fight back again on
Wednesday, knocking down allegations that his decision to avoid
the debate showed disrespect toward ordinary voters.

"I have daily communication with people," Lopez Obrador
told a radio station. "Every week I have direct meetings with
100,000 people in town squares. Most people know my proposals
and in no way do I consider it a lack of respect."

Lopez Obrador insists he is way ahead of Calderon and has
said he will join a second debate in early June.

Still, Calderon was in a buoyant mood. He claimed that many
of those who supported Lopez Obrador were volatile voters who
could easily change candidates, and have done so.

"It was a very, very, very fragile vote, a totally flexible
vote, and it suddenly began to crumble," he said.

(Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel, Chris Aspin and
Luis Rojas Mena)