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Mexico ends tight, tough race

The hotly contested race turned negative in the run-up to Sunday's vote.

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Since then, blogs, radio spots, and more TV ads have built on these themes. Mass anonymous e-mails – which are unregulated by IFE – have gone further, warning that Obrador will limit foreign travel and ban religious meetings. One recent e-mail made comparisons between the candidate's fiery populist rhetoric and that of Hitler.

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Meanwhile, Calderón, the conservative candidate from Fox's National Action Party (PAN) has also been hurt by negative campaigning. The former energy minister represents pro-foreign investment and pro-business interests, proposes a more active foreign policy, a tighter embrace of NAFTA, and has floated a historic proposal to form a coalition government.

But all anyone can talk about these days is his brother-in-law.

It started at the June 6 debate, when, live in front of 13 million viewers, Obrador accused Calderón with helping channel $230 million in government contracts to his brother-in-law, Diego Zavala, who allegedly evaded taxes on the deals. "Once again, you lie," shot back a surprised Calderón, who has campaigned on a "clean hands" anticorruption platform.

In the days after the debate, Obrador ran multiple TV ads repeating these charges and then, in a widely covered publicity stunt, dumped boxes of what he said were documents to prove the claim at Calderón's campaign headquarters.

Both Calderón and Mr. Zavala have denied the accusations, and even filed a defamation suit against Obrador – but the allegations have resonated, playing off one of Obrador's favorite themes – that the elites in Mexico are prospering at the expense of the poor, and are handing out favors to their friends and family.

In a country obsessed with telenovelas, the campaigns have become a sort of soap opera, says Francisco Abundis, a political scientist and a director at the Parametria polling firm. "Everyone sits tight and sees what one character does, and then holds their breath as they wait to see how the other responds."

And "going negative," says Mr. Abundis, has paid off. "Obrador was winning by 10 points until Calderón started with the negative campaign. It was very forceful and it took about a month to correct this trend, with Obrador only managing to get even by going negative as well," he says.

Mudslinging a US import

"The whole negative campaigning concept comes to us directly from the US," says Mr. Madrazo of CMM. "You go to these seminars on how to run campaigns and they are filled with Latin Americans ... and then you come home with DVDs and watch ads of some governor in Oklahoma and figure it out."

Some observers worry that negative campaigning has dangerously divided the country, making violence a possibility if there is no clear winner Sunday. But others, like Gabriel Guerra Castellanos, a political analyst for the daily Reforma newspaper, thinks the mudslinging is actually a sign of a healthy democracy. "We have finally matured into an adult democracy with all its trappings," he says. "We are finally normal.... The campaign has been dirty, which is exactly what happens in other democratic countries."

Mexicans might be obsessed at the moment with Calderón's brother-in-law's finances – but at least they are not focused on election fraud, as has been the case here for decades, says Mr. Guerra. And overall, says the analyst, the intense feelings aroused by the negative campaigning are wonderful. "People are into it. We feel impassioned and we feel we have a stake," he says. "Finally."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.