MEXICO CITY — The sweating vendor pulling a vegetable cart through Mexico City's central wholesale market stops short when a tall, smiling man in black jeans and cowboy boots steps forward to extend his big hand.
Bewildered by the throng of cameras and important-looking people who usually only trouble the market's daily chaos at election time, the young man says, "I'll support him if he supports us." Then catching his breath he adds, "Who is he again?"
So goes another day in the Vicente Fox presidential campaign, more than two years before election day: July 2, 2000.
Mr. Fox, the charismatic and controversial opposition-party governor of Guanajuato state, is on a two-part mission: First, to deny the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) another six years in the presidential mansion it has occupied for seven decades; and second, to make himself Mexico's first non-PRI president in modern times.
Despite the violence, corruption, desertions, and general public disfavor the PRI has suffered over the last decade, the assignment the colorful Fox has taken on won't be easy. And that explains why, two years before most Mexicans are thinking about the next presidential race, the tall rancher and former director of Coca-Cola Mexico has been hitting the hustings.
In walks through sites like the Mexico City market and meetings that sound every bit like an election-eve rally, Fox is building up his still-low name recognition, one handshake at a time. "Mexico," he repeats again and again, "cannot afford to enter the 21st century with the same leadership that after 70 years has us in the sorry state we are in today."
In a country where the presidential horse race that mattered has always gone on behind closed doors, with the PRI president hand-picking his successor with the time-honored dedazo, or "fingering," the Fox campaign is another sign that Mexico is indeed changing.
Some Mexicans, tired of thinking that most of the change in their country is negative - more violence, more drugs, more poverty, more pollution - seem to latch on to the Fox campaign as a hopeful sign.
But others say Fox's unorthodox campaign proves his power-hungry nature, and even officials of his own center-right National Action Party (PAN) worry that such a long campaign might dash the party's chances in 2000. But the candidate himself says Mexico's new times - and the resistance already so evident to that change - require a different strategy.
"Clinton started his campaign for the presidency five, six years before the election, and it worked, and he wasn't up against 70 years of entrenched power," Fox says. "We know the road will be full of spiders, snakes, and scorpions who will do anything to prevent anyone outside the PRI from winning the presidency, and this is what must change."
Besides, he adds, anyone who thinks early campaigning for the presidency is really new in Mexico doesn't understand how the system has worked. The PRI's presidential aspirants have always started jockeying for presidential favor about three years out. Cabinet shuffling by President Ernesto Zedillo in January and May, elevating certain PRI hopefuls to high-profile slots, indicate the system is still in operation, Fox says.
"The difference is that I want the campaigning to be transparent, out in the open," the mustachioed candidate says. "And the voters should be the ones hearing from all these candidates and judging them," he adds, "not one man or some hidden process going on under the table."
Fox says that ultimately he will be judged by the job he does as governor of Guanajuato. So he spends a lot of his campaign time talking about the poor agricultural state north of Mexico City, known for its charming colonial cities, shoe production, strawberries, and high emigration. About 1 million Guanajuatenses live in the US.
But his emphasis is elsewhere. Touting "human capital," Fox says that under him, Guanajuato is focusing on education, individual initiative, and security. A new scholarship system guarantees education through university level to any child who "makes the effort to succeed." In a country where the banking system considers 80 percent of the population "not bankable" for its low income, Fox says Guanajuato has established a microcredit system where "anyone" can get a small loan.
Last year 35,000 people, mostly women, received "micro loans" to buy a sewing machine or tamale-making machine "to help themselves lift their families out of poverty."
Fox also emphasizes various judicial reforms, such as taking the state attorney general's appointment out of the governor's hands and putting it with the state Congress, tripling judges' miserable salaries, and boosting the minimal education and training requirements for police, implemented as part of a head-on battle against corruption.
Fox is not a party insider, and he knows he is not the favorite of many who are. But he also knows that, while he must first win the party's nomination if he is to be a viable candidate in 2000, no PAN candidate can win without broad appeal. And broad appeal is something he appears to have, even among people who don't know his name. During the Mexico City mayoral race last year, the PAN's intellectual, aloof candidate was hooted out of the market when he tried to campaign there.
With the lanky, black-booted Fox, things are different.
"I like him, he's strong, he's one of us," says fruit vendor Elizardo Rodriguez. "Uh, he's from Guanajuato, right?"