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This is a debate? Mexico's presidential face-off a scripted affair.

Mexico's presidential debate was highly structured and scripted last night, leaving little room for candid conversation on important policies like security and education.

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Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) also used visual props to attack Peña Nieto, holding up a photo showing him with a former governor whose term ended amid corruption allegations.

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The PRI governed Mexico for most of the 20th century until the PAN won the presidency in 2000. All candidates are trying to paint Peña Nieto as a return to an authoritarian past, and Mr. Lopez Obrador added that voting in either the PRI or PAN would not represent true change in the nation.

"This dominant group has privatized the government," Lopez Obrador said. "Do you think things will get better if the PRI comes back? Let's take a totally new path."

Peña Nieto navigated the attacks with solid rebuttals and tried to paint his two main opponents as taking the negative road (the fourth candidate, Gabriel Quadri, while considered by some to be the winner for a solid performance, mostly stayed out of the fray – though it helped that he was largely ignored by the other candidates). "They seem to have come to an agreement,” Peña Nieto said of the attacks by Vazquez Mota and Lopez Obrador. "They're coming with knives sharpened.”

One of the latest polls ahead of the debate, published in El Universal Sunday, put Peña Nieto ahead at 39.2 percent, Vazquez Mota at 22.1 percent, Lopez Obrador at 17.5 percent, and Mr. Quadri at 1.1 percent. In the leading papers in Mexico today, analysts disagreed over who the winner ultimately was, which means the race is probably going to be unaltered by the debate.

“The debate allows the candidates to present their ideas and how they will tackle issues if they become president, but it did little to influence the vote,” says Javier Oliva, an analyst at Mexico's National Autonomous University.

The format of the debate hails from an older idea that you can't touch the candidates – for one day one of them will be president, Mr. Oliva says. “I call them 'Soviet debates' ... It was not like the debate of Hollande and Sarkozy, which had more freshness,” Oliva says, referring to the candidates in France's recent election.

But it's not the format itself that made this debate so uninspiring, says Mr. Muñoz, it's the participants. Last election Lopez Obrador skipped out on one debate, which cost him crucial points. In 2000, when Vicente Fox of PAN won the presidency, his charisma behind the lectern caused him to soar.

“This time [debates] won't make the difference of a single point,” Muñoz says.

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