Eduardo Verdugo  /  AP
A supporter of Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador stands Tuesday at Mexico City's main Zocalo plaza before the last presidential debate. Mexican elections are secheduled to take place on July 2.
updated 6/6/2006 11:00:35 PM ET 2006-06-07T03:00:35

Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador battled to regain his lead Tuesday night during the final debate of the presidential campaign, promising to bring new life to Mexico so that millions won’t have to seek better lives in the United States.

“The Mexican people deserve a better destiny,” he said.

His main opponent, conservative Felipe Calderon, pledged to eradicate corruption and enforce laws that are often ignored in Mexico.

Calderon, of President Vicente Fox’s conservative National Action Party, and Lopez Obrador are running neck-and-neck ahead of the July 2 vote, and analysts have said the debate could help one candidate break ahead.

All five of Mexico’s presidential candidates took part in the debate, but most eyes were on Calderon and Lopez Obrador. Both have been airing hard-hitting negative ads and exchanging barbs for months in their fight for the government’s top job.

The silver-haired Lopez Obrador led polls for two years until a debate in April, which he chose not to attend, saying he preferred to speak face-to-face with voters.

The decision cost him. In his absence, which was marked by an empty podium, Calderon was widely seen as the winner against Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Roberto Madrazo, who is running third in the polls.

Career politician Calderon has accused Lopez Obrador of being a dangerous populist allied to Venezuela’s fiery anti-American President Hugo Chavez, while Lopez Obrador claims Fox has illegally boosted government spending to keep his party’s hold on the presidency.

Fox has denied the allegations. Such practices are particularly sensitive in Mexico, where the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party used government largesse to hold power for 71 years until Fox’s victory in 2000.

Shooting raises tensions
Hours before the debate, a Mexico City shooting heightened pre-election tensions.

The wife of jailed businessman Carlos Ahumada said gunmen shot at her car hours before she was to release videos expected to be damaging to Lopez Obrador. The car had bulletproof windows and protective armor and nobody was injured.

Police had made no arrests in the case.

In March 2004, Ahumada, a Mexico City construction mogul, rocked the country when he was shown in videos giving a suitcase holding thousands of U.S. dollars to a political ally of Lopez Obrador.

Other incriminating videos later appeared and led to the expulsion and resignation of members of Lopez Obrador’s party. The former Mexico City mayor has denied any connection.

“The seeds of deep political divisiveness planted during the campaign could present grave challenges for the incoming government,” wrote the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs in a report released Tuesday. It said that the vitriolic campaign was threatening the country’s “newfound stability.”

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