MEXICO CITY — For many, the Rubenesque, onetime Playboy model strutting before the candidates in a shockingly revealing dress dominated the debate, even though she appeared for less than 30 seconds.
Some of Mexico’s presidential hopefuls were even caught ogling, as the young woman distributed cards indicating who would speak first.
But for those following the May 6 presidential debate, there was a more surprising performance. The revelation: Gabriel Quadri, a little-known environmentalist, showed up his rivals.
Mexico’s July 1 election will be critical for the future of the country seeking to boost economic growth amid widespread discontent over rising prices and stagnant salaries, and struggling to provide safety to citizens even as the outgoing president’s bloody drug war claims more lives.
The first presidential debate may not determine the outcome of the election, which is widely expected go to Enrique Peña Nieto of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
But Quadri’s strong performance bolsters a small party tied to a hugely powerful constituency: Mexico's national teachers' union. It's been known to make some noise — and even swing elections.
Quadri is running on a ticket for the New Alliance, widely considered the personal property of teachers’ union boss Elba Esther Gordillo. She is perhaps the most powerful and polemic woman in Mexican politics and claims credit for rallying her base to sway the close 2006 election in favor of President Felipe Calderon.
The little-known candidate entered the debate as an afterthought. A self-described liberal polling just 1 percent, his talk last month at the World Economic Forum in Puerto Vallarta couldn’t draw a dozen people.
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But in front of the TV cameras at Mexico City’s World Trade Center, he seized a chance to shine. As the leading candidates traded barbs, the underdog aspirant appeared to rise above the fray to try something different: He spoke about policy.
Peña Nieto fended off pointed attacks from all directions. He said his opponents came with “knives sharpened.”
Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), took a stab by bringing up a state where the front-runner’s PRI party left a massive debt after using bogus documents to borrow big.
Peña Nieto fought back, accusing Vazquez Mota of having a bad attendance record in Congress.
Candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who represents a trio of left-wing parties and nearly won the 2006 election, blamed Mexico’s mighty media for propping up its preferred candidate, Peña Nieto.
One top network, TV Azteca, chose not to carry the debate, opting to air Mexican soccer playoffs instead.
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Quadri, in contrast, mostly stuck to policy. He rebuked fuel subsidies that cost more than programs for Mexico’s poorest, and talked about the need for environmental protection.
Twitter lit up, with Quadri became a trending topic.
But tweets also mocked the event. Some said they’d vote for the model; others mused about voting instead for Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna — a 19th-century ruler thought of as Mexico’s Napoleon.
The organizers later apologized for the skimpy dress worn by the debate assistant. In much of the international media coverage, her appearance overshadowed the contenders to take over from Calderon, who is constitutionally not allowed to seek re-election.
"The debate discourse was so miserable that the model came out better than the candidates," said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.
"No newspaper is running with a news agenda generated by the debate."
In a post-debate poll published by the newspaper El Universal, 31.6 percent of respondents said Peña Nieto won — while 18.4 percent picked Quadri.
Carlos Marin, a columnist of the newspaper Milenio, called Quadri the debate victor, but said the candidate is “condemned … to stay in last place.”
That's fine so long as he wins at least 2 percent of the vote, enough for the New Alliance to maintain its registration and share of the millions in public money given to political parties.
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Quadri's already seeing a boost: The May 8 Milenio-GEA/ISA tracking poll, which included some pre-debate interviews, gave the candidate 3.2 percent — nearly 50 percent better than one day earlier.
Quadri ends his campaign ads by asking voters if he can count on them. After his debate performance, the answer is more likely to be yes.