A Conservative Takes the Lead in Mexico Race ; Felipe Calderon Surpassed the Leftist Front-Runner Last Week, Surprising Many

Article excerpt

He seems nervous waving to crowds, uncomfortable when supporters chant his name. "Uncharismatic" is what he's usually called. But now Felipe de Jesus Calderon Hinojosa is the man to beat in Mexico's July 2 elections.

The young, at 43, lawyer and economist was far behind when the campaign season took off last fall. To begin with, President Vicente Fox, barred constitutionally from running for a second term, backed a different candidate to lead his center-right National Action Party (PAN). More critically, there was the seemingly unstoppable rise of populist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), who is as charismatic and dynamic as Calderon is ho-hum.

But that was then. Calderon compares himself to a racehorse from a well-known Mexican ballad that - slow and steady - ends up winning the big race.

The self-appointed local Seabiscuit, Calderon surprised everyone by winning his party's primary in October, and has been closing the gap between himself and former Mexico City mayor Lopez Obrador ever since.

"I was not the favorite at first, but I have gained ground and come from behind just like the racehorse. Now I am going to win," he says, speaking to the Monitor in his campaign bus.

"Things really took off at the end of March. That is when we made some strategic changes," explains Calderon. The PAN logo was switched, the staff was reshuffled, and the stump speech was revamped. But the most effective strategic decision was probably to "go negative" and air controversial television commercials portraying Lopez Obrador as a demagogue in the style of Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. "We decided to ... show Mexicans who Obrador really is," says Calderon.

The commercials, along with Lopez Obrador's decision to skip last week's presidential debate, hurt the PRD candidate's popularity. A poll in the local Reforma newspaper the day of the debate showed Calderon with 38 percent support, with Lopez Obrador slipping to second place - at 35 percent - for the first time in over a year. Roberto Madrazo, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 71 years before Fox came into office in 2000, was in third place with 23 percent. Post-debate snap polls have confirmed the trend of Calderon's rise.

With the wind at his back, Calderon set out this past weekend on a three-day campaign trip across the states of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Michoacan - all PAN strongholds - in high spirits. "We finally see who's who among the candidates," Calderon told throngs of supporters at a San Miguel de Allende rally Friday evening. "Now we can see who is the rooster and who didn't even show up at the cockfight," referring to Lopez Obrador's absence at last week's debate.

Going from early morning meetings with poor farmers to white- tablecloth breakfasts with business leaders, Calderon emitted an air of calm confidence. His wife Margarita Zavala and three young children - decked out in Calderon '06 T-shirts - joined him for parts of the journey. …