MEXICO CITY — When Mexico’s presidential front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto faced a crowd of university students Friday in Mexico’s capital, they jeered him and derided his party's checkered past. Many chanted “coward” and “get out!” as he was ushered away.
That was an unusual departure from the warm receptions the popular candidate has seen over the first six weeks of campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election.
Still, the election is Peña Nieto's to lose. The 45-year-old former governor of Mexico state and member of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), he has projected polish, popular appeal and power in his drive to take the presidency.
Although barbs fly his way — whether from doubts about his party's past or his personal sins, or suspected media influence — Peña Nieto commands a comfy double-digit lead in the polls ahead of his rivals.
The latest survey by pollster Consulta Mitofsky puts his support at 38.5 percent, Reuters reports.
Even throughout the recent university heckling, Peña Nieto kept his composure. "I'll never turn down the opportunity to listen to society, much less young people," said a message later from the candidate’s Twitter account.
It wasn't always this way. During the pre-campaign period he committed embarrassing gaffes, such as failing to name three books that had profoundly influenced him at the Guadalajara book fair. News reports also surfaced that he cheated on his first wife and fathered two children out of wedlock — something rival candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota raised on Mother's Day.
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But many Mexican media outlets don't dwell on his scandals, or when they do, some papers seem to scrub the candidate clean. Of the recent disruption at Mexico City's Ibero-American University, a chain of newspapers owned by the OEM group ran headlines proclaiming "Peña's success at Ibero."
Candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador blames the country's powerful broadcasting industry for boosting the telegenic Peña Nieto from a little-known provincial politician to a presidential front-runner.
Peña Nieto, meanwhile, boasts a record of well-publicized — if not thoroughly verified — accomplishments that also have helped prop up his political popularity since leaving office last summer.
He's promised all things to all people. And he’s spoken of combatting corruption and overhauling the energy sector, social security and taxes. Those plentiful pledges come despite the fact that lawmakers in his own party have backed away from similar proposals.
"You know that I'm going to deliver," Peña Nieto says in campaign ads, parroting the theme of good governance in Mexico state.
Candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), has attacked Peña Nieto by highlighting incomplete projects in Mexico state — to no avail.
Vazquez Mota's campaign has stumbled while vying to succeed President Felipe Calderon, who by law cannot run for re-election. Hecklers have made unwelcome appearances. Events have been canceled suddenly and she nearly fainted recently while addressing a conference on security.
She’s the first female candidate to run on a major party’s ticket for president. Much of the advertising and discourse in her campaign trumpets the word “different.” That slogan — coming from the party of incumbent Calderon — is a hard sell.
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"Different is a weird word in English. It's the same in Spanish," said political science professor Federico Estevez of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico. He asked of Vazquez Mota's advisers, "What focus group did they run this by?"
Making matters worse, former President Vicente Fox, a fellow PAN member, has said the party’s campaign needed a "miracle" — only to recant.
Fox based his pessimism on the polls.
The latest Consulta Mitofsky poll gives Peña Nieto a 17.5-point lead over Vazquez Mota, who’s support slid 1 point to 21 percent, her lowest score since the campaign started in March, Reuters reported.
Some polls have even placed her further behind in third place.
Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the presidential race in 2006, polled at 19 percent in the Mitofsky survey. Running on the ticket of a trio of left-wing parties, he has spread the message of creating a “loving republic” and national reconciliation.
That could strike a chord with some Mexicans fed up with the violence that’s spiked since the Calderon government launched a military assault on drug cartels in December 2006.
But the country’s longing for more peaceful days might play better into the hands of Peña Nieto. His PRI ruled Mexico for 71 years until 2000. Many Mexicans credit PRI governments for keeping drug violence at bay through deals with organized crime groups — something the PRI denies ever happened.
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Enthusiasm for the PRI is evident on the campaign trail. At events, men imitate Peña Nieto’s gel-intensive hairdo, while women form brigades known as "Las Gaviotas," named for his soap opera-star wife Angelica Rivera. Young people also attend — with some being barely old enough to remember PRI rule. Consulta Mitosfsky estimates 39 percent of Mexican youth plan to vote PRI.
Some had been concerned about Peña Nieto’s ability to keep up his charisma without a script or a teleprompter. But the May 6 televised debate changed that. The front-runner emerged largely unscathed in the face of his rivals’ attacks.
"He won, not because he won the debate ... but because his poll numbers will remain the same," said Aldo Muñoz Armenta, political science professor at the Autonomous University of Mexico State.
Vazquez Mota often warns of the risks of returning to PRI rule. Lopez Obrador often invokes polemic politicians of past PRI governments such as former President Carlos Salinas, whose administration was followed by a damaging crash of Mexico's peso. Critics say Salinas is the brains behind the Peña Nieto campaign.
Peña Nieto seems unfazed, especially as many Mexicans express nostalgia for the order and stability of previous PRI rule — in spite of criticism for being corrupt and authoritarian. "My party regrettably has been marked more by the errors of the past than the accomplishments it's had," he recently told CNN.
Plenty voters appear ready to overlook those past mistakes come July 1.