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In Mexico, a choice between change, status quo

The campaigning period is over as Mexico's voters get ready to elect a new president. NBC's George Lewis reports on the issues at the heart of a race with much mud-slinging.
Calderon presidential candidate for PAN greets supporters at the last campaign rally in Guadalajara City
Felipe Calderón, presidential candidate for Mexico's National Action Party, greets supporters at his final campaign rally, in Guadalajara on June 28. Daniel Leclair / Reuters
/ Source: NBC News

MEXICO CITY, Mexico — With official campaigning over, polls indicate a virtual dead heat between the two top contenders at the end of a nasty race for president, a vote that could have important consequences for U.S.-Mexico relations.

"It is going to define the future of the country for many years to come," said Denise Dresser, a political science professor at Mexico City's Instituto Technológico Autónomo (ITAM). "In many ways," Dresser added, "this is about a house divided."

Harvard-Educated Felipe Calderón, 43, the candidate of the National Action Party, the party of current president Vicente Fox, promises continuity in the way Mexico is governed and the way it deals with its neighbors.

"I will be an inclusive president," Calderón told a rally in the western city of Zamora in his home state, promising to meet with his political adversaries if he wins the election.

His chief opponent is Andres Manuel López Obrador, 52, the former mayor of Mexico City. Representing the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party, López Obrador has campaigned as a populist, saying repeatedly, "We must put the poor first."

"We can't have a rich government at the expense of a poor society," he told a crowd of 8,000 people in the colonial city of Puebla. 

That sort of talk resonates with impoverished Mexicans, but scares many in the business community who fear that he may roll back Fox's free-market policies and hinder foreign investment.

"López Obrador is a danger to Mexico" was an oft-repeated slogan in the Calderón campaign.  But many Mexicans, disappointed at the failure of the Fox government to deliver on promised job growth, could be ready for a change of direction. The deciding factor may be who can turn out the most voters.

Turning out voters
With six million Mexicans between the ages of 18 and 21, both frontrunners have gone out of their way to court the new voters, talking about pot on Spanish-language MTV and appearing with popular sports figures.

But only three out of every 10 people under 30 bothered to vote in the 2003 mid-term elections and a prominent pollster said apathy among the young is widespread.

"Young people, to be crude, have more things to do," said Alejandro Hope of the Group of Economists and Associates, a polling firm. "Because of this abstention, public policy tends to have a pro-old bias."

Old political machine
Some seasoned observers say that in spite of the tight race between Calderón and López Obrador, it's premature to count out the entity that, before the rise of Fox, ruled Mexico for 71 years: the Institutional Revolutionary Party, best known by its Spanish-language initials, PRI.

"The PRI does have a very strong apparatus to turn out the vote," said U.S-trained political consultant Julio Madrazo, "The only real national machinery belongs to the PRI."

But the party's candidate, Roberto Madrazo, 53 (no relation to consultant Julio), is trailing in the most recent polls by about seven percent and facing defections from his own party. 

Campaigning in the Mexican state of Coahuila, bordering Texas, Madrazo told supporters, "People want results. And the PRI knows how to deliver." 

Now he hopes that his party's seasoned stalwarts will deliver votes for him, something that might put him over the top if the voter turnout is far lower than the expected 62 to 64 percent.

Dresser, the political scientist, disagrees. "Those are the PRI's fantasies," she said, arguing that Madrazo has run a lackluster campaign. But she added, "The PRI will continue to be a political force in this country," noting that the party still has considerable power in the Mexican congress, frequently using that clout to block legislation proposed by President Fox.

Negativity not drawing in voters
One thing that may keep the turnout low is the negative tone of the campaign.

Both sides have run attack ads — partly the product of American political consultants hired by both sides — with Calderón comparing López Obrador to leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and López Obrador trying to portray Calderón as a puppet of the rich. 

"The campaign has gotten to be very negative, very dirty," said Dresser, "with lies and accusations being flung from both sides."

That has confused many of the voters in Mexico, with 15 percent of them listed as "undecided" in some polls.

Missing: Discussion of illegal immigration
With the focus on negative personal attacks, most of the experts say there's little talk of the heated debate over illegal immigration going on north of the border. 

But while both men have pledged to maintain good relations with the United States, López Obrador uses more confrontational rhetoric when talking about foreign relations. "The next President of Mexico won't be the lackey of any foreign government," he insisted during a rally on Tuesday.

All the candidates agree that Mexico needs to improve its economy so fewer people have to head north in search of jobs. And this time around, candidates aren't doing much "gringo bashing."

"A Mexican presidential hopeful can no longer bash the United States," said Dresser, "When ten percent of Mexico's population lives north of the border."