Mexican presidential candidates face off in debate

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Mexican presidential candidates face off in debateFILE - This combo picture of three file photos shows presidential candidates, from left, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, PRI, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party, PAN, and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, PRD, during different events in Mexico City. Mexico's scheduling conflict between a presidential candidates' debate and a soccer quarterfinals match got ugly Tuesday, May 1, 2012. It seems to have been turned into a grudge match, between whether Mexicans will tune in to watch politicos batting around ideas, or two of the nation's best teams playing soccer. Mexico will hold presidential elections on July 1, 2012. (AP Photo, Files) (Credit: AP)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico’s four presidential candidates jostled to present themselves as the true agents of change in their first televised debate Sunday evening, seen as a key opportunity for Enrique Pena Nieto’s rivals to cut into his double-digit lead as he seeks to return the country’s former ruling party to power.

Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, opened the debate by describing Mexico’s economic performance as the worst in 80 years, saying “there aren’t enough jobs, and the ones that exist don’t pay well.”

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the third-place candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, echoed that theme, saying “every Mexican knows things aren’t going well.”

Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, running nearly 20 points behind Pena Nieto in most polls ahead of the July 1 vote, emphasized her role as the only woman in the race, and sought to de-emphasize her ties to the party that has governed for the last 12 years.

“I want to be president because I have the sensitivity, as a woman, to listen,” she said. “I’m a different candidate … different because I don’t belong to powerful, privileged groups, because I’m honest.”

Analysts say the debate will be a test of whether Pena Nieto, a telegenic former governor of Mexico state who is married to a Mexican soap opera star, is able stray from his carefully choreographed campaign and think on his feet.

“Josefina Vazquez Mota and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador desperately need (percentage) points, which means they will come out with aggressive strategies,” wrote political analyst and columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson in the newspaper El Universal.

“They both know that, with two months to go, this may be the last real opportunity to strip away much of the front-runner’s lead,” he said. “It’s now or never.”

Another presidential debate is scheduled for June 10.

Pena Nieto’s party, known by its Spanish initials PRI, hopes to recover the presidency it lost to National Action in 2000 elections, which ended 71 years in power.

Pena Nieto’s rivals were expected to argue that his party has not changed its autocratic and corrupt ways during its 12 years on the sidelines.

PRI strategists, in turn, were seeking to portray the party as one led by a new generation of politicians who will fulfill promises and not tolerate corruption.

“We recognize with clarity that this debate is going to be everyone against Pena” Nieto, Jorge Carlos Ramirez Marin, deputy coordinator of the PRI presidential campaign, told reporters on the eve of the debate.

Pena Nieto has been criticized for not participating in public debates and canceling appearances at academic forums, part of a strategy of avoiding confrontations with his rivals.

Analysts say he has little to gain from such debates, and could only risk damaging his carefully managed image and hefty lead.

A survey by polling company Buendia & Laredo released Sunday in El Universal had Pena Nieto with 39.2 percent support, Vazquez Mota with 22.1 percent, Lopez Obrador with 17.5 percent and Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance with 1.1 percent. The remaining people were undecided.

The poll surveyed 1,000 adults across Mexico and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Representatives of the candidates agreed on the questions to be presented during the two-hour debate. They ranged from how the candidate would fight organized crime to economic strategy to what the candidate would do to reduce poverty.

Each candidate was given a question and his or her rivals were allowed a chance to respond. The candidate was then be given the opportunity for a counter-response. Some critics have said the format is too rigid to allow for a full debate.

The debate is being broadcast at the same time as the quarter finals of a local soccer league, meaning the number of Mexicans watching the debate could be low.


E. Eduardo Castillo can be followed on Twitter at

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