Mexican Presidential Candidates Debate; Ruling Party Faces Fight

Article excerpt

MEXICO CITY -- Just as Mexico's presidential election turns into a real race, a charismatic opposition leader is counting on a televised debate to help him bring down the party that has ruled Mexico for 71 years.

The debate last night comes at a crucial time: A newly released poll shows Vicente Fox of the opposition National Action Party in a virtual tie with Francisco Labastida of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

The July 2 elections could be Mexico's cleanest ever and may represent the best chance for the opposition to defeat the PRI.

Fox, 57, a former Coca-Cola executive whose cowboy boots and blunt talk make him the most flamboyant of the presidential field, has been campaigning against Labastida on a platform of change -- his campaign slogan is "enough already!"

Labastida, also 57, has been running a largely traditional populist campaign, promising more money for farmers, schools, construction and running water.

For more than seven decades, the PRI's political machine has held onto the presidency by means fair and foul, but the party has been forced by both domestic and international pressure to make itself, and Mexico's electoral system, more democratic.

The PRI touted last night's debate -- only the second presidential debate ever -- as a triumph of that democracy, even though the somewhat stilted format prevented any direct exchanges between candidates or any questions from anyone at all. …