Presidential Candidates Debate Mexico's Future

In a little more than three weeks, Mexicans will elect a new president. It's one of the tightest presidential races in Mexico's history. The only television debate in which all the candidates participated took place Tuesday night.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Mexicans will go to the polls in a little more than three weeks. It's one of the tightest presidential races in Mexico's history. Last night, Mexicans saw the only televised debate, in which all of the candidates participated, and the country was able to hear their proposals regarding Mexico's future.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Mexico City.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO reporting:

Mexico's presidency is up for grabs, a novelty in a country where, for most of the last century, sitting presidents hand-picked their successors.

By all accounts, this race will be a very close one. Polls have been showing a dead-heat between the candidate of the right, Felipe Calderon, and the leftist, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. And so, candidates have been doing anything and everything to get an advantage.

Calderon was behind in the polls until he began comparing Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan President Huge Chavez, a divisive figure whom some here view with suspicion. The strategy worked, giving him a boost. And in last night's debate, Calderon again warned the country against his rival.

Mr. FELIPE CALDERON (Mexican Presidential Candidate): (Through translator) On July 2nd, we are going to decide between two projects; one that I propose, which is based on being sensible, stability in the rule of law. And the other one represented by the candidate of the PRD; huge state spending, which will end in huge debt, inflation, devaluation, economic crisis, which will again bankrupt the country.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For his part, Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City whose known for his fiery rhetoric, mostly kept his cool and stayed on message. He sees himself as the answer for the almost 50 percent of Mexicans who live in poverty.

Mr. ANDRES MANUEL LOPEZ OBRADOR (Mexican Presidential Candidate): (Through translator) For the good of everyone, first must come the poor. That will be the guiding principle of our government; not only for humanitarian reasons, but because one cannot govern in a sea of inequality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lopez Obrador ended his discourse, though, by accusing Calderon of nepotism and corruption.

The debate touched on a number of subjects, including crime and the long- neglected issue of migration. Calderon promised a firm hand to deal with criminals and job growth to help stem the flow of people seeking entry into the U.S. Lope Obrador said that tough sentences won't deter criminals, and promised instead to help create opportunities for Mexico's disaffected youth. He also said he would push for a migration accord with the U.S.

The candidate of the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years, Roberto Madrazo is running a distant third in the polls. He's been trying to capture the middle ground, to little avail. Political analyst Sedhuya Arroyo(ph) says that Madrazo and his party, the PRE, are partially victim of the increasing polarization of this country. Historically in Mexico, he says…

Mr. SEDHUYA ARROYO (Political Analyst): The ideological infighting was done in private, behind a curtain. There was not an open ideological debate.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now the divisions have burst out onto the political landscape. Mexico finds itself torn between two candidates who represent vastly different standpoints. There are worries that if the election is very close, it could cause instability.

Mr. ARROYO: We are testing the strength of our democratic institutions. We are going to see if it's strong enough, flexible enough, to sustain the extreme tensions created by the entire election. Nobody exactly knows what to expect.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sedhuya Arroyo says the stakes can't be overstated. He says this is one of the most important elections in Mexican history.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mexico City.

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