Andrés Manuel López Obrador is not a man who elicits lukewarm responses.
"He is marvelous. A superstar. An angel ... a true Mexican patriot," sighs Liliana García García, a shopkeeper attending an Obrador rally last week in the central state of Queretaro.
On stage in the Plaza del Armas, the gray-haired candidate in a pink and blue plaid shirt is revving up the crowd. "We are going to bring the price of electricity down," he promises. "Gas prices are coming down!" he cries. "We are not accepting the contradiction that we live in a rich country, but we are poor," he calls out. "We are going to end injustice!"
Polls in recent days show next week's presidential election will likely be a photo finish. Mr. Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) has drawn even with Felipe Calderón of the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN). Roberto Madrazo, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that led this country for 71 years until 2000, is trailing in third.
The public has dubbed Mr. Calderón – who focuses on foreign investment, free trade, and pro-business policies – the "employment candidate." Mr. Madrazo, who has devoted much of his campaign to fighting the scourge of violence, is often called "the security candidate." But Obrador is known, simply, as the "candidate of the poor."
The specter of an Obrador victory arouses strong emotions – of all kinds.
"The country doesn't need a savior. It needs leadership. Obrador is abusing the desperation of the poor with empty promises and easy solutions. He is intoxicating the public," says Enrique Jackson Ramírez, president of Mexico's Senate and a member of the PRI. "If he wins, this country will find itself in a major crisis."
Some of Obrador's positions also make Washington uneasy. All candidates have condemned the construction of more walls along the US-Mexican border, and have vowed to push for an immigration accord with the US. But Obrador, who has been in the US only once in his life and does not speak English, is the most critical of US policies. He has also threatened not to honor Mexico's agreement to drop tariffs on US corn and beans as stipulated by the North American Free Trade Agreement.
The eldest of eight children, Obrador began his political career 30 years ago in the PRI, working as an Indian Welfare official in his home state. He broke from the party in 1988 to help form the PRD, and lost two races for the Tabasco governorship, and turned, in the mid 1990s, to serving as president of the party, gaining a reputation as an activist.
As mayor of Mexico City for five years until last July, Obrador, by then a widower with three sons, became famous for his modest, folksy style: Living in a small apartment, driving an old Nissan, arriving at the office before daybreak, and playing first base during semiregular municipal games. He was also known for his cash grants for the elderly and the poor, which helped his approval rating soar as high as 80 percent.
As presidential candidate, Obrador chose the campaign slogan: "For the Good of Everyone, the Poor First." His platform, centered on the approximately 50 million impoverished in the country, followed accordingly.
Obrador today promises to increase pensions and lower gas, electricity, and cooking fuel costs. He vows to provide more clean water, institute free universal healthcare, redirect spending into education, and pave new roads. He vows to hand out monthly government grants of about $70 each to senior citizens, the disabled, and single mothers.
To do all this, he assures voters, he will not raise taxes. The money, says Porfirio Alejandro Muñoz Ledo, one of the founders of the PRD and a close Obrador adviser, will mostly come from ending an era of "unfair advantages" and "monopolies" of the wealthy. While Calderon has proposed cutting income taxes for the rich and businesses in order spur investment, Obrador vows to combat rampant tax evasion.
As mayor, Obrador oversaw the renovation of the city's old downtown historic district, built an expensive second deck to the city's ring road, and opened special bus lanes to relieve congestion in the traffic-choked capital.
As president, Obrador says, he will initiate even more ambitious and labor intensive public work projects: He has proposed giving government subsidies to build up to 1 million new low-income homes, constructing a railroad to connect Mexico City with US border towns, and launching reforestation operations.
Other Obrador proposals are more symbolic–he has said that, as president, he would move out of the luxurious "Los Pinos" presidential compound and into the National Palace downtown, and slash his salary, as well as those of the all the rest of the high ranking government officials.
Critics, like Senate president Jackson, claim Obrador is "dividing the country into those who are poor and therefore good and deserve help, and those who have money and are bad and need to be dealt with," says Jackson. "Of course this generates votes, but it's not viable and it's not responsible – and it does not bode well for our country."
Calderón has gone even further, calling Obrador "a danger to Mexico" in his campaign ads, and broadly hinting that he will follow in the footsteps of Hugo Chávez, Venezuela's leftist, anti-American, and authoritarian president who is unpopular in Mexico.
"Not so," counters Manuel Camacho Solís, a former Mexico City mayor and another of Obrador's key advisers. "If we look to any leftist leaders in the region in the model it would be Bachelet," he says, referring to Chilean president Michelle Bachelet, a close US ally and moderate socialist.
Those who paint Obrador a radical populist in the Chavez model, claims Camacho, are trying to use the word "populist," as an insult, but actually it's a positive attribute. "Populism connotes pandering to the masses, debt creation and short term thinking – but we are the opposite of all that. We have had 25 years in Mexico with no growth. Clearly the people deserve better and we are addressing that. In that sense we are proud populists." Whatever is being said behind closed doors, the US has officially taken a stance of studied neutrality on the candidates. "We are very satisfied with the Bush administration... and we are sure that we will be able to get on," says Camacho Solis. "Clearly the US would be more comfortable with Calderón because he is going to be much more predictable and he also is more in tune with the US model for the Mexican economy – but they are more than willing to work with Obrador," says Pamela Starr of Eurasia Group, a consultancy in New York.
The most frequently voiced fears of a Obrador presidency, however, are not about his platform – but rather his authoritarian style. Enrique Krauze, a leading Mexican historian says Obrador has a messiah complex. Writing in the Mexican magazine Letras Libres, Krauze says Obrador "doesn't see himself as Jesus...but it's something like that."
Such criticism is "idiotic" replies Munoz Ledo. It is based on "racism, elitism and classism," of the wealthy white towards the "dark-skinned," that Obrador represents, he says.
Back in Queretaro, Obrador is winding down. "The rich and powerful are going to have to understand..." he says, "...we are going to help everyone, but we are going to help the poor first!"
García, now sporting her free, "Smile we are going to win" T-shirt, claps until her hands are red. "Who is going to help you?" the candidate on stage calls out, smiling broadly – "Obrador, Obrador," everyone cheers.
Across Mexico, adoring female fans call him "my rooster." Old friend's have nicknamed him "El Peje" after a razor-toothed, lizard-like fish that lurks in the swamps of his native Tabasco state. His family calls him "the rock."
But after the July 2 elections, will they be calling Obrador el presidente?
• Ms. Harman is the Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.