MEXICO CITY — Could the Mexican opposition's only real hope lose Mexico's presidential race because he is divorced and his four children are adopted?
With challenger Vicente Fox and ruling party candidate Francisco Labastida in a statistical dead heat leading up to Sunday's vote, the so-called "family" issue is taking on decisive importance - especially among women voters. With party affiliation mattering less for an increasing chunk of the electorate, more Mexicans are deciding their vote on the candidates' backgrounds and personalities, analysts say.
And it seems women don't much like what they see in Mr. Fox.
All six candidates for president describe themselves as agents of change - a no-brainer position to take when 60 percent of voters say the country is on the wrong track. But in a conservative country where "change" also conjures up social upheaval and a breakdown of the traditional Mexican family, women especially identify the divorced, boots-and-jeans Fox with an unstable, nontraditional male who is not their idea of a role model.
With women making up 53 percent of registered voters, that inclination could be decisive. Reliable polls show that while Mr. Labastida tops Fox by a 2-to-3 point sliver, he is comfortably ahead among women.
And the lead is even sharper among housewives, for whom the idea of change is a two-edged sword. Unlike Fox, who is banking on Mexicans ousting the Institutional Revolutionary Party that has governed for 71 years, Labastida speaks carefully of "change with stability." More important for many women, he is giving his wife Mara Teresa Uriarte a high-profile role in the campaign.
At a recent Labastida rally for women in the border city of Ciudad Jurez, the walls of a disco were plastered with the same poster: a shot of Labastida chivalrously holding an umbrella for his wife. The caption? "United for Mexico."
"To me that poster says she is behind her husband as a wife should be, and together they are involved in society," said Maria del Carmen Gonzlez Snchez, a Jurez nurse.
A wifeless Fox also leaves a bad taste with Marisela Ramos Avila, a Jurez elementary schoolteacher. "By campaigning with his wife, Labastida is demonstrating that he believes what we believe: that marriage is the pillar of the family, and the family is the pillar of society."
In his campaign, Fox emphasizes the need to strengthen Mexico's families and to teach values in schools. He is also an adamant abortion foe. But that apparently does not make up for the absence of a woman at his side.
During a recent Mexico City radio talk show, a woman called in to say Fox simply wasn't qualified to be president of Mexico. "We have fought hard to keep Mexico a country of strong families," she said. "So how could we have a president who is not married and whose children are not his own flesh and blood?"
The caller may not have known that Labastida and his wife, both in a second marriage, have no children together. But her comment showed how adoption has little tradition in Mexico and remains such a marginal practice that some families turn to the United States to find adoptable children.
Knowing well this predisposition against anything but the traditional family, Labastida supporters are using the issue against Fox. "It's not possible to govern the grand Mexican family if you don't have a woman at your side," the governor of Colima state, Fernando Moreno Pea, proclaimed at a Labastida rally last week.
"A man needs a woman to calm his spirit," he continued. "But [Fox] has no one to calm his spirit."
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