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Mexico's presidential debate: Candidates faced easy questions as protesters filled streets

Candidates largely avoided attacking front-runner Enrique Peña Nieto in last night's final presidential debate, but the tens of thousands of students protesting his party beforehand did not.

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But instead of attacking Peña Nieto, he presented himself as a statesman. He never once got riled. He never made a low blow. He named specifically who would be part of his cabinet before his time ran out. It was as if he was presenting himself as the frontrunner, said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo, on the after-debate show on Canal 11, one of Mexico's most popular television stations.

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Europe Bureau Chief

Sara Miller Llana moved to Paris in April 2013 to become the Monitor's Europe Bureau Chief. Previously she was the paper's Latin America Bureau Chief, based in Mexico City, from 2006 to 2013.

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It was Vazquez Mota who was on the attack. Perhaps the most entertaining moment of the debate was hers: she began asking the audience to imagine that she were running against three women. At first it seemed as if she were, once again, trying to rally the “woman vote,” but then she zinged each of the candidates. She said Mexicans will never know how Lopez Obrador will wake up, if he is feeling “loving” or not – a dig at his image makeover this election, which included calling for a “loving republic.” She also said Mr. Quadri as president would have to get advice from his "mother" every step of the way, a criticism of the support he has received from booster Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the teacher's union, who is largely perceived as one of the most corrupt actors in Mexican society.

Her attack mode was perceived by many users across Twitter as an attempt to steal the 2 percent of voters aligned with Quadri. More likely, her strategy was to use an attack tactic to at least get back into second place. Her party, the PAN, was cheered by Mexican society after the fall of the PRI in 2000, but her lagging campaign has shown Mexico's disillusionment with their rule over the past 12 years.

Quadri spent his time trying to drive the debate: he called upon the candidates to declare their stances on abortion and same-sex marriage, and tried to bring up  the role of China in Mexico. He was paid some attention, but not much.

But Peña Nieto, who has led the polls since the race officially began in March, didn't garner much more attention than Quadri did. He was instead left to repeat his stances on creating jobs, diminishing inequality, providing better security, efficiency, transparency, and the list goes on.

Anyone seeking a game-changing debate was sorely disappointed last night. But in stark contrast to the debate itself, tens of thousands of students took to the streets to protest the PRI yesterday, indicating that what happens off the airwaves and on the streets could deliver some major surprises – especially among the high number of undecided voters, many of whom are surely still undecided after last night.

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