MEXICO CITY — ON most weeknights at 10 p.m., one will find millions of Mexicans watching soap opera heart-throb Eric Estrada on ``Two Women, One Road.''
But on May 12, Mr. Estrada will face stiff ratings competition from three guys never before seen together on Mexican television: Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano, and Diego Fernandez de Cevallos.
The three will star in Mexico's first-ever debate between presidential candidates. For 90 minutes in prime time, the presidential ``wanna-bes'' will square off in a live exchange broadcast nationwide on television and radio. For the opposition candidates, the debate offers an opportunity to present an unedited image to voters in the mostly pro-government broadcast media. An estimated 90 percent of the population will be able to see the debate.
``We're not worried about winning the debate,'' says Adolfo Aguilar Zinser, a close aide to Mr. Cardenas, the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate. ``We just want our candidate to be seen on television by millions.''
Cardenas is second in the polls and finished a close second in the 1988 presidential elections. Like many Latin American leftists, Cardenas has moved toward the center, portraying a more pragmatic approach to issues than in the past. Cardenas advisers have heard rumors that the Zedillo team is pouring over old Cardenas speeches to discover position shifts to portray him as unreliable. Mr. Zinser contests the ruling party's image of Cardenas as an unstable radical. ``Whenever Cardenas is on TV his ratings go up. He comes across as sober, nonviolent; and voters react by saying he's not as bad a person as painted by the government.''
While some analysts argue that the front-runner risks the most in a debate, the May 12 historic encounter could also work to the advantage of the ruling party candidate, Zedillo. The Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate faces one of the toughest races since the PRI took office 65 years ago. Their original candidate was assassinated on March 23. Zedillo, more of an administrator than politician, has stepped in with less than four months until the election. Seen as a cold but brilliant technocrat, he may use the debate to present his working-class roots and a warmer side.
The debate also offers the conservative National Action Party (PAN) candidate, Mr. Cevallos, an opportunity to boost his third-place status. Cevallos is considered the best orator of the three and has been climbing in the polls, thanks largely to witty, outspoken exchanges during radio interviews.
Another possible effect of the debates could be to nudge undecided voters. The Mexico City-based polling firm Market Opinion and Research International calculates that 35 percent of those polled are undecided.
The buzz over what Zedillo has called ``the start of a new democratic culture, a new way to campaign, a new way to win votes,'' has political analysts and commentators studying ``debateology.'' The famous Kennedy-Nixon televised debate is being recounted in newspapers here, as is the telling defeat of Peru's Mario Vargas Llosa by Alberto Fujimori in a debate prior to the last presidential elections there.
The opposition parties have painstakingly negotiated over the details of the event to prevent their messages from being distorted. There will be four cameras - one for each candidate and the moderator. No close ups or cuts to other speakers will be permitted while a given candidate is speaking. No audience will be allowed in the studio. And the debate cannot be rebroadcast in excerpts - to prevent a popular pro-government nightly news program from selecting moments of the encounter that put the ruling party in the best light.