He seems nervous waving to crowds, uncomfortable when supporters chant his name. "Uncharismatic" is what he's usually called. But now Felipe de Jesús Calderón Hinojosa is the man to beat in Mexico's July 2 elections.
The young, at 43, lawyer and economist was far behind when the campaign season took off last fall. To begin with, President Vicente Fox, barred constitutionally from running for a second term, backed a different candidate to lead his center-right National Action Party (PAN). More critically, there was the seemingly unstoppable rise of populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), who is as charismatic and dynamic as Calderón is ho-hum.
But that was then. Calderón compares himself to a racehorse from a well-known Mexican ballad that - slow and steady - ends up winning the big race.
The self-appointed local Seabiscuit, Calderón surprised everyone by winning his party's primary in October, and has been closing the gap between himself and former Mexico City mayor López Obrador ever since.
"I was not the favorite at first, but I have gained ground and come from behind just like the racehorse. Now I am going to win," he says, speaking to the Monitor in his campaign bus.
"Things really took off at the end of March. That is when we made some strategic changes," explains Calderón. The PAN logo was switched, the staff was reshuffled, and the stump speech was revamped. But the most effective strategic decision was probably to "go negative" and air controversial television commercials portraying López Obrador as a demagogue in the style of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "We decided to ... show Mexicans who Obrador really is," says Calderón.
The commercials, along with López Obrador's decision to skip last week's presidential debate, hurt the PRD candidate's popularity. A poll in the local Reforma newspaper the day of the debate showed Calderón with 38 percent support, with López Obrador slipping to second place - at 35 percent - for the first time in over a year. Roberto Madrazo, candidate of the Revolutionary Institutional party (PRI) that ruled Mexico for 71 years before Fox came into office in 2000, was in third place with 23 percent. Post-debate snap polls have confirmed the trend of Calderón's rise.
With the wind at his back, Calderón set out this past weekend on a three-day campaign trip across the states of Tamaulipas, Guanajuato, and Michoacan - all PAN strongholds - in high spirits. "We finally see who's who among the candidates," Calderón told throngs of supporters at a San Miguel de Allende rally Friday evening. "Now we can see who is the rooster and who didn't even show up at the cockfight," referring to López Obrador's absence at last week's debate.
Going from early morning meetings with poor farmers to white-tablecloth breakfasts with business leaders, Calderón emitted an air of calm confidence. His wife Margarita Zavala and three young children - decked out in Calderón '06 T-shirts - joined him for parts of the journey.
"I used to come play kick-the-can here on my summer vacations when I was a child," Calderón said at a breakfast meeting in Salamanca Saturday. He went on to explain how that child's game was dependent on teamwork, and segued into a request for support for PAN congressional aspirants. But a fair number of the crowd seem more interested in their chilaquiles, the traditional dish of fried tortilla chips bathed in salsa, chicken, and cheese.
"He is not the man to get people jumping up and down with excitement," says Marisol Padilla Avila, a public accountant, looking over at Calderón standing stiffly, hands at his side, as a few supporters chant "si se puede!" - "yes it can be done!" - his campaign slogan. "But he knows what he is saying and he has sound ideas, and that's what counts."
Creating jobs is the centerpiece of Calderón's platform. While López Obrador speaks of increasing welfare programs, Calderón talks about reform. A former energy secretary under Mr. Fox, Calderón says he intends to extend the president's free-market policies, open up the troubled energy sector, and fix tax and labor laws - all in order to create new jobs. "The President of Employment" read the white flags that his operatives hands out at rallies.
"How many of you have family in the United States?" Calderón asks a crowd of thousands Saturday evening. Nearly every hand goes up. "I have a cousin and brother-in-law there too," admits Calderón. "Our fathers, sons, sisters ... we need to bring them back here," he says. "A good economy rests on two legs: workers and jobs. We have the workers. Now let's bring investment and jobs here," he says.
"I will remain firm in demanding fair rights for Mexicans in the US," stresses Calderón. "If we build one kilometer of road here it will be better than 10 kilometers of a fence along the border."
Honest government is another of Calderón's key promises. Whenever he takes the stage at his rallies, he holds his palms up, the campaign's symbol for clean government.
Calderón's messages go down well not only in the dusty villages but also in the country's boardrooms, with most of Mexico's business community supporting him.
Still, with elections two months away, a large number of undecided voters, and López Obrador still exceedingly popular, a Calderón victory is far from guaranteed. "We have a lot of work ahead," admits the candidate. "This is a tight race."
Victor Florencio, an elderly man with a cowboy hat, walked slowly out of a Calderón rally in Yuriria on Saturday. "Not bad," he says of the candidate's platform. He believes Calderón can win, but has some advice: "Someone should tell him to yell more, that is what we expect from our politicians."
• Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.