The dusty plaza in Jilotepec, Mexico, is festooned with bunting. The arched porticos of buildings are laced with red, white, and green streamers, pithy political slogans, and pictures of the man who next week will be elected president of Mexico.
More than 1,000 townspeople and countryfolk trucked in for the occasion mill about, awaiting the arrival of Miguel de la Madrid Hurtado, presidential candidate of Mexico's dominant Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI).
To the accompaniment of wailing police sirens and incessant horn honking, the candidate is suddenly amid the crowd. A mariachi band plays. Town leaders shake Mr. de la Madrid's hand.
The candidate waves his arms and smiles broadly. The local Catholic priest issues an invocation calling on God to look ''with favor upon this man who today is in our midst and soon will be elected president of the Mexican nation.''
Then the candidate speaks.
''We must rid Mexico of inequalities. . . . Corruption must end. . . . A new day is dawning for Mexico. . . .''
The scene is typical - part of a ritual that Mexico undergoes every six years. Although he is one of seven candidates, Mr. de la Madrid is regarded a shoo-in in voting July 4.
After all, he represents the dominant political PRI party, which hasn't lost a presidential election in 52 years. It's unlikely that 1982 will be the year this long winning streak is broken.
But Mr. de la Madrid has been campaigning for eight months as though his political life depended upon it. Six years ago, incumbent President Jose Lopez Portillo did the same. Presidents going back to 1929 have done so also.
Mr. de la Madrid is trying to touch the lives of all Mexicans as he pauses in towns like Jilotepec.
The campaign, like political campaigns everywhere, is part farce, part drama, part sincere. But there is a special twist here. Mr. de la Madrid, like most of his predecessors, was not well known among Mexicans when he was tapped as the PRI nominee. He also needed to get to know Mexico and Mexicans in all their diversity.
The campaign thus becomes an exercise in getting acquainted - for Mexico's poor, who desperately hope that the new president will somehow improve their lot , and for the candidate to see the problems facing 78 million Mexicans as he visits virtually every nook and cranny of the nation.
The campaign also lends a degree of legitimacy to a one-party system which has undemocratic undertones.
This year's campaign is more critical than any in recent memory. With vast oil reserves, Mexico is a potentially rich land, but it is also a troubled nation beset with mighty problems.
Mr. de la Madrid mentions the economic and social inequalities in his speeches, and he has spoken out against corruption, which seeps into virtually every aspect of national life. He has also mentioned the declining quality of life.
Whether the future president will be effective in meeting these challenges remains to be seen. He told newsmen early this year that ''my term in office will be a make-or-break situation. If we don't soon get a handle on our problems , they will overcome us.''
He also knows that he has a handicap. In some ways, he is a political outsider. He has been a bureaucrat, not a politician. A former secretary of planning and budget, he has never held elective office. He has few alliances to draw upon.
He has to build alliances - and quickly - if he is to be effective as president.