A Hard Blow Hits Mexican Politics ; 'Bad Boy' Presidential Candidate Roberto Madrazo Takes on the Ruling

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The colorful inflatable hammers held aloft by supporters chanting, "Hard, hard, hard!," as in "Hit 'em hard!" say it all: This is a campaign event for Roberto Madrazo, the self-described rebel candidate for president of Mexico within the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

For the first time, Mexico's long-governing PRI is holding a primary to choose its presidential candidate, traditionally handpicked by the outgoing president. Now as the diminutive, mustachioed Mr. Madrazo - whose last name means "hard blow" in Mexican slang - arrives at PRI headquarters to deliver a speech, he is like a walking question mark.

How far will the PRI's bad boy take his attacks against Francisco Labastida Ochoa, the presumed preference of President Ernesto Zedillo? Madrazo has called Mr. Labastida the "official candidate" for months, raising doubts about the man who does indeed appear to be the principle beneficiary of the PRI's legendary vote-delivering machine.

This became evident amid devastating floods and mudslides that have claimed at least 350 lives in the past week. Labastida was criticized in the press when aid packages bearing his name were distributed in Puebla state. Mr. Zedillo, meanwhile, chastised candidates who criticized the government's response to the disaster. "We do not want to think that those who are speaking out ... are doing it, not out of concern for the people, but for personal political interest," he said Monday in the mountain city of Teziutlan.

Should Madrazo lose a tight party race to Labastida in the Nov. 7 primary, will he stick with the PRI or bolt and run for president with another party?

That may sound like the usual political intrigue - the equivalent of speculation around Pat Buchanan in the United States. But for Mexico, where the six-year cycle of presidential politics has been a source of violence, instability, and economic setbacks over the past decade, speculation over the PRI's unity and Madrazo's future in particular is more than just political parlor talk.

Labastida is considered the front-runner, although a new Indemerc Louis Harris poll released Oct. 8 shows Madrazo with a comfortable lead in the four-candidate PRI race. The poll also found that should Madrazo leave after the primary, about half of PRI's voters claim they would continue to support him.

"There's a big risk of a rupture in the party, and that would entail all kinds of grave consequences," says Jacaranda Pineda Chvez, a PRI congresswoman and firebrand Madrazo supporter. Ms. Pineda says, "If the party base sees that the PRI really isn't changing and the apparatus continues to support one candidate despite talk of democracy, then I think disenchantment could trigger a straying to other parties."

Nine months before Mexico's July 2 presidential vote, many observers are already calling the election the PRI's to lose. "The PRI has undertaken a genuinely competitive [primary] process that has enhanced its prospects, but on the other hand it can't afford to lose any section of ... support," says Alberto Arnaut, a political specialist at Mexico City's Colegio de Mexico. …