No-show in Mexico: political gaffe?

Leftist presidential candidate Lopez Obrador skipped Tuesday night's debate.

There was ruling National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa looking dapper, smiling at the camera and holding up a picture of a luxury Miami apartment. He claims his rival, former governor of Tabasco, Roberto Madrazo Pintado, didn't pay taxes on.

There was Mr. Madrazo, knocking former energy minister Mr. Calderón, waving newspaper reports of recent crime and corruption under his party's watch, and promising a fresh start with his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last century.

There were Roberto Campa and Patricia Mercado, two minor candidates using their 15 minutes of fame to attack both Madrazo and Calderón, and push proposals on everything from the environment to exercise classes in high schools.

And there, in the corner was an empty lectern, standing in for leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador, long seen as the man to beat in Mexico's July elections. The Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) leader decided to skip the first of two presidential debates this Tuesday night.

"The battle for the silver medal," was how Mr. López Obrador's campaign manager Jésus Ortega described the debate, which is only the third time such an exercise has been held in Mexico. For decades election fraud and government intervention practically guaranteed victory for the outgoing president's hand-picked successor.

But, say observers, López Obrador may have miscalculated. The decision to stay away, possibly to portray himself as an underdog, under attack by all the rest, seems to have backfired.

"He had something better to do?" wondered Isaias Juarez, a night watchman and self-described "disappointed López Obrador supporter," who watched the two-hour debate on a small TV outside a private home he was guarding.

Contrary to expectations, the candidates barely even mentioned López Obrador at the debate, depriving him of a "victim" role. "He didn't come to this debate because he doesn't have viable proposals," Calderón said of López Obrador in his opening remarks, and left it at that.

Instead, the four other presidential hopefuls took the opportunity to engage in a fairly substantive - if slightly stiff - exchange on the economy and development, laying out plans for housing, energy, labor, poverty alleviation, and social and sustainable development.

"It was not the most entertaining [debate], but still better than expected," says Ana Paula Ordorica, a political columnist for the daily Excelsior newspaper, summing up the prevailing evaluation of the event by the Mexican press.

López Obrador, who has worried some in Washington by promising to end two decades of US-backed, free-market reforms and pump money into welfare programs and big infrastructure projects, was the debate's "clear loser," says Ms. Ordorica. "After all the pre-debate talk about how the empty podium would be a center of attention, it was out of focus. López Obrador was truly absent. It seemed he did not care enough to be part of the discussion," she says.

Just last month López Obrador was still holding a substantial lead over the other candidates. But in recent weeks his numbers have fallen, and a poll in the daily newspaper Reforma Tuesday had him behind Calderón for the first time. The poll, conducted before the debate, found 38 percent support for Calderón. López Obrador garnered 35 percent support, and Madrazo was behind with 23 percent.

For López Obrador, the drop in the poll numbers comes after increased sparring with his rivals, during which the fiery former mayor began referring to President Vicente Fox, who is constitutionally barred from running but is supporting Calderón, as a chachalaca - a large wild bird known for screeching loudly. Calderón, meanwhile, began running advertisements accusing López Obrador of being "a danger to Mexico" who would destroy the country's finances, taunting him for not having the courage to join the debate, and comparing him to firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

But pollster César Morones, director of the Institute of Marketing and Opinion, says Obrador's dip is temporary, and that his no-show at the debate will have no long-term impact on the July 2nd elections. "More people were watching a telenovela than the debate Tuesday," he says, referring to the popular soap operas and noting the lack of general interest in substantive political debate in the country.

A second debate, scheduled for June 6, is to focus on politics and government - public safety and corruption, governability, foreign relations, and immigration. López Obrador has promised to be there.

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

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