Mexican Challenger Tries to Light Voters' Fires

After soaring to the top of presidential polls in May, Fernandez dropped from public view. He now hopes a media blitz can restore his prospects for ending the ruling party's 65-year rule.

DARK eyes flashing, stabbing the air with his finger, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos is doing what he does best: attack and counterattack.

``As I predicted, as our strength grows ... there comes a cavalcade of insults, slander, defamation, and lies,'' growls the National Action Party (PAN) candidate for president of Mexico, working an audience of some 1,000 residents in a poor barrio on the fringes of Mexico City.

``From one day to the next, I've become a sinister man ... a lawyer of abortionists, and lover of narco-traffickers. My answer is very simple,'' says the bearded criminal lawyer, pausing for effect. ``Present your proof.''

Brusque. Cigar-chomping. Witty. Pugnacious. Crude.

The Queretaro State rancher known by his political handle ``The Chief'' is back, trying to re-kindle political momentum in the final weeks before the Aug. 21 election.

Suddenly the rage

The center-right party candidate became an overnight sensation in May, when he clobbered the front-running candidates in Mexico's first-ever televised presidential debate. Mr. Fernandez shot from a distant third to first place in some polls. Mexicans began to seriously consider that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) might, for the first time in 65 years, lose a presidential election.

But then Fernandez took an unexpected political sabbatical. For 18 days in June and more than two weeks in July, he held no public campaign meetings. PAN officials called it a tactical move to prevent overexposure. Most of Mexico was ensconced in the World Cup soccer tournament playoffs anyway. And Fernandez was preparing for another debate, an economic policy showdown, with the ruling party candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

But the debate never happened. Fernandez slipped back to as much as 15 points behind Mr. Zedillo in some polls. Other surveys show him still in a dead heat with the PRI candidate. Political analyst Arturo Sanchez believes PAN made a tactical error.

``Diego's campaign lost momentum. And the PRI won't give him a second chance to get on television and debate Zedillo again,'' says Mr. Sanchez of the Mexican Institute for Political Studies, a private Mexico City consulting firm. ``The question now becomes not what can Diego do to win, but what shouldn't the PRI do to lose in the next few weeks.''

PAN officials are mounting a media blitz, rather than the traditional tour of big campaign events around the country, to try to give Fernandez the widest possible exposure leading up to the election. And Fernandez will, along with the rest of the candidates, have the benefit of free television air time. The two leading television networks were pressured into giving away 15-minute blocks after their campaign news coverage was judged strongly biased in favor of the ruling party by government and civic studies.

Political analysts who give Fernandez a chance of winning, say he may benefit from the protest vote against the ruling party. Although President Carlos Salinas de Gortari remains popular, the Chiapas uprising of Mayan Indians in January and the assassination of the original PRI candidate, Luis Donaldo Colosio, has shaken public confidence in the PRI government.

Voters seek stability

In the last presidential election, the center-left candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano received a big boost from people dissatisfied with PRI rule. But this time, analysts say, concerns about security may prejudice voters against Mr. Cardenas and the left, which is associated with political unrest.

This past week, the PAN, seeking the protest vote, has added to its slogan ``Mexico without lies,'' a slogan to reassure voters: ``Diego - a safe change.''

Although the Fernandez meteoric rise was unexpected, PAN has been a pro-Catholic, pro-business fixture in Mexican politics since 1939. It holds three state governorships (the only opposition party to hold any) and has 89 seats in the 500-seat lower house, making it the second political force in Congress.

Fernandez, leader of the PAN congressional deputies, comes from the moderate and pragmatic wing of the party. During the Salinas administration, he formed a working alliance with the PRI deputies to pass reforms on issues such as privatization, trade, and church-state relations.

These ties, and the closeness of PAN and PRI political policies, has caused problems for Fernandez. He is attacked both within and outside of the party for working with the enemy.

But Fernandez firmly denies being in league with Salinas. ``They say that I'm going to win the presidency thanks to a dirty, two-faced, cheating, immoral deal,'' he says. ``If you want to know if I'm the president's candidate, don't ask me, ask him, because if he's going to vote for me, I won't try to dissuade him.''

Questions of religion

Fernandez's self-declared militant Roman Catholicism worries some Mexican voters. ``He's too close to the Catholic Church. He'll be under their control,'' says Margarita Cazares, a teacher in Mexico City. ``What's that going to mean for non-Catholic churches? Or population control?''

Fernandez is sensitive to the criticism: ``I'm Catholic. But if I become president, I will not favor any religion or church. As for [religious] persecution, it's unjust.''

The PAN candidate offended female voters shortly after his May debate by publicly using the term viejerio, slang for ``old women.'' And he has had to explain why the father of four children (one outside of wedlock) has never had a standard civil wedding, just a religious ceremony. Answering a question about his anti-abortion stance, Fernandez now seems to want to show his compassion for women.

``We need to find just paths for women,'' he says. ``How many women abort because their husbands force them to? How many women abort to keep from losing their job or to get a job? How many women abort because they have no way to feed the children they have? We need to find new solutions so women don't see taking the life of their child as a solution.''

To win, PAN officials say they need a high voter turnout. This is the closest race in Mexican history. But after decades of PRI rule, democratic change is a concept difficult for many to accept.

``Diego's got style,'' says Jose, an amiable sandwich vender with a punk haircut and the word ``poison'' tatooed on his left forearm. ``But the PRI will win. It always wins.''

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