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In Mexico, the drug war has left a top candidate for governor dead and his party casting about for a new candidate five days before the election. The man favored to become governor in the state of Tamaulipas was gunned down on Monday. Mexican officials say the vote will go on even as the man assassinated was remembered at a huge memorial service in the capital. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)

JASON BEAUBIEN: In a modern convention center in Ciudad Victoria, thousands of people rose to their feet and applauded for almost five minutes straight as the bodies of Rodolfo Torre Cantu and his bodyguards were carried in to the podium.

Torre, who had a wide lead, according to opinion polls, in the Tamaulipas governor's race, was assassinated as he was wrapping up his campaign this week. Gunmen blocked his campaign convoy with a tractor-trailer and then opened fire.

Even the day before he was killed, he vowed on the campaign trail to tackle insecurity, which is the word politicians use to refer to the rampant drug gang killings. He was eulogized by current Tamaulipas Governor Eugenio Hernandez.

Governor EUGENIO HERNANDEZ (Tamaulipas, Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Hernandez told the crowd that Torre was a man who gave his all for the state of Tamaulipas. He said Torre was a symbol of hope during what have been troubled times.

Across Mexico, 12 politicians have been murdered this campaign season, but the killings of mayors and local political party chiefs no longer garner much attention. They tend only to get a day or a day-and-a-half's worth of headlines. Torre, however, was on the verge of being a state governor, and he's the most high-ranking candidate to be killed since Luis Donaldo Colosio was gunned down in Tijuana in 1994.

Earlier this year, the Gulf cartel and their armed wing, the Zetas, had a falling-out. The two gangs have been battling each other here in an increasingly violent fashion for control of drug-smuggling routes through Northeastern Mexico.

The national newspaper Reforma in an editorial implied that Torre was executed by the Zetas because he favored the Gulf cartel. Torre's supporters say he didn't have ties to any organized criminals.

Beatriz Paredes, the national head of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, said there's a battle going on in Mexico right now between good and evil.

Ms. BEATRIZ PAREDES (Institutional Revolutionary Party): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We believe that in Mexico, she said, there are more people who want truth, goodness and democracy than people who want hate and, for no reason, chaos.

More than 23,000 people have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the cartels in December of 2006.

After Torre's killing on Monday, there were calls by some politicians for this weekend's elections to be suspended, at least here in Tamaulipas. But officials now say all the polls nationwide will go forward as scheduled.

President Calderon called a special meeting of his security ministers in response to the assassination.

President FELIPE CALDERON (Mexico): (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: These actions represent an attack not just against one citizen, Calderon said. It's an attack against our democratic institutions. And thus it's an act that requires a strong and unified response on the part of everyone who cares about democracy.

And the Mexican president said organized crime remains the greatest threat to Mexico.

President CALDERON: (Spanish spoken)

BEAUBIEN: We cannot and should not allow organized crime to impose its perverse rules, Calderon said, as they are trying to do now by interfering in the decisions of citizens and the electoral process.

Calderon and other leaders have been calling on the Mexican people to show their solidarity against organized crime by going to the polls on Sunday. But in the streets here, people say they're terrified.

Many parents rushed to pull their children out of school when word of Torre's shooting hit the airwaves, and some people say they have even less reason to vote now that the leading candidate is dead.

The 46-year-old Rodolfo Torre Cantu leaves behind a wife and three children.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas.

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