Profile: Mexican Presidential Hopeful Andres Obrador

Mexican voters go to the polls this July to elect a successor to President Vicente Fox. Colin Campbell reports on one of the three candidates — Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is pledging big changes if elected. But can the candidate for the Party of Democratic Revolution win in Mexico?

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In July, Mexican voters will elect a new president. Three candidates are vying for the job. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is the left leaning front runner who is promising big changes.

Colin Campbell reports.

COLIN CAMPBELL reporting:

Three hundred miles east of Mexico City, in the fishing town of Albarado, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has arrived in a white SUV with the words The Poor Come First painted on the side.

Mr. ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR (Mexican Presidential Candidate): (Spanish spoken)

CAMPBELL: The 53-year-old widower is running for president on his record as mayor of Mexico City. There he earned high approval ratings for the social programs and public works projects he launched during his five year tenure.

Mr. OBRADOR: (Through translator) People in the capital have told me that these programs are so great, why aren't they being done at the national level? I am here to tell you that we will now do that.

CAMPBELL: Lopez Obrador has amassed a healthy lead in the polls, but he's lucky to be on the ballot. A year ago, federal authorities nearly jailed the then-mayor for forging ahead with one of his public works projects despite a court order prohibiting it. After hundreds of thousands of his supporters marched in the streets, the charges were abandoned.

President Vicente Fox, who backed an effort to remove Lopez Obrador from office, has criticized his campaign.

President VICENTE FOX (Mexico): (Through translator) We must reject demagoguery and populism. What Mexico needs and what its citizens and their families want is to continue on the road of democracy.

CAMPBELL: Last month Fox's party ran a critical TV ad likening Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan hardliner Hugo Chavez. As he campaigns across the country in loose fitting shirts he leaves untucked, Lopez Obrador likes to wag his finger and berate his enemies.

Mr. OBRADOR: (Through translator) They are saying, Stick it to him. They compare me to Chavez. They can say all they want, but they are never going to be able to say that I am inconsequential or out of step with the people, or that I am a thief. They can never say those things.

(Soundbite of Spanish music)

CAMPBELL: Lopez Obrador's closest challenger is Felipe Calderon(ph), whose campaign ads, like this one, featured the slogan Clean Hands. In a nation with a long history of political corruption, the former Fox administration cabinet secretary is running on his clean resume.

Calderon has the support of many of Mexico's most powerful business people, and he leads the race in campaign spending.

Lopez Obrador hopes his austere lifestyle will convince voters that he, too, frowns on corruption. He lives in a modest apartment with his three sons and drives to work in an old Nissan. His austerity has helped him connect with Mexico's poor voters, who he needs to carry him to the presidency.

Amelia Fernandez Reyes came down from a farm she works in the mountains above Vera Cruz to listen to Lopez Obrador at a recent rally.

Ms. AMELIA FERNANDEZ REYES: We're tired of the old governments because they have stepped on us, especially the outer regions of the country. Obrador has been saying the poor come first, so we think he will look out for us, but we'll believe it when we see it.

CAMPBELL: Among Lopez Obrador's campaign promises is a nationwide pension program. Mexico scholar George Grayson(ph) says these sorts of expensive proposals from Lopez Obrador could make matters in Mexico worse.

Mr. GEORGE GRAYSON (Mexico Scholar): He's going to run the risk of having major government deficits after a couple of years, and those deficits are going to spark inflation. And once inflation begins in a country like Mexico, it's extremely difficult to curb.

CAMPBELL: In the last six years, many Mexicans have voted with their feet. The number of illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States has grown to more than 12 million.

But Mexico's slowly expanding economy has rewarded some of those who have stayed. Inflation is at a 37 year low, and a growing middle class is buying new homes and cars.

Law school student Victor Jimenez(ph) says he's worried Lopez Obrador could undo some of these gains.

Mr. VICTOR JIMENEZ: (Through translator) If a bellicose guy like him who doesn't know much about diplomacy or much about anything, ends up representing Mexico to the world and the U.S., we'll end up with more problems than we have now.

CAMPBELL: Election day is just three months away, but Lopez Obrador's competitors will have less time than that to catch him. During the month of June, most Mexicans won't be thinking about politics. They'll be thinking about how the national soccer team does in the World Cup.

For NPR news, I'm Colin Campbell in Mexico City.

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