updated 6/29/2006 11:18:43 AM ET 2006-06-29T15:18:43

Mexico’s presidential candidates wrapped up months of mudslinging with final campaign rallies Wednesday, with left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon locked in a tight race.

Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, chose Mexico City’s main square for his final appeal to voters, while Calderon of President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party went to one of his party’s bastions, conservative Jalisco state.

At the center of Sunday’s vote are twin realities: Mexico’s vast inequalities and the newfound economic stability that has allowed many families to have homes, mortgages and new cars for the first time.

The election will determine whether Mexico joins Latin America’s rising tide of charismatic leftist leaders or continues on a path of fiscal conservatism and unbridled free trade.

The sharp contrasts “are the result of an economic model that, even if it isn’t worn out yet, has caused social tensions” between the rich and the poor, political analyst Oscar Aguilar said.

Polls show horserace
That divide will be on display at rallies Wednesday, the last legal campaign day before a four-day period in which candidates are prohibited from making statements.

Final polls, published last week, showed Calderon running about even with Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.

The left’s strongest base is in Mexico City, whose main square holds more than 100,000 people. Lopez Obrador, 53, has long considered filling the square with supporters to be the ultimate demonstration of his popular appeal.

The plaza also witnessed historic scenes that Lopez Obrador sees as the high points of Mexico’s history, such as the 1938 expropriation of foreign-owned oil companies. However, he dislikes Calderon’s frequent efforts to compare him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an anti-American socialist known for his angry rhetoric.

The 43-year-old Calderon is wrapping up his campaign in staunchly Roman Catholic western Jalisco state, where he first announced his candidacy.

Accusations, attacks characterize campaigns
Calderon, and business groups that support him, have spent almost the entire campaign accusing Lopez Obrador of offering a return to the overspending and big government that caused frequent economic crises of the past.

“Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico” was a favorite Calderon campaign slogan.

Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, has promised “to put the poor first” by establishing universities with open enrollment, creating pensions and cash-support programs for the impoverished and elderly, and protecting the country’s agriculture sector by refusing to follow a clause of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada.

“The next president of Mexico won’t be the lackey of any foreign government,” he said during a rally Tuesday.

He also has sought to distance himself from the “leftist tide” in the region and project a friendlier, less-threatening image with slogans like “Smile, we’re going to win,” and “Happiness is on its way.”

Third candidate still hopes for win
Not to be counted out is Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000, when Fox became the first opposition candidate to break the party’s stranglehold on power.

Running third in polls and facing defections from party members, Madrazo is hoping his political machine can pull out the votes.

“The PRI that many gave up for dead six years ago is stronger than ever today,” Madrazo said Tuesday.

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