TECAMAC, Mexico—Under a big-top tent, hundreds of Mexicans hold their palms skyward. It feels like a Baptist revival, but it's not. It's a political rally for presidential candidate Felipe Calderon, who calls himself Mr. Clean Hands and vows to rid Mexico of corruption.
That's a lofty promise in a land where corruption is endemic. But it's good politics for the candidate of the ruling National Action Party, or PAN.
Here's why. Front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, the PRD, was mayor of Mexico City. In 2004 his personal secretary and finance chief were separately videotaped in secret receiving briefcases full of cash from a businessman.
The third candidate, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, can't fully explain how he, a poorly paid public servant, is worth millions, with luxury homes in Mexico and Miami. The PRI, which ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, is so closely identified with corruption that top candidates—including Madrazo—make no mention of their party in their campaign ads.
Madrazo's also dropped his tarnished surname. His ads call him Roberto, as if he were a soccer star.
Being Mr. Clean Hands is a smart move for Calderon as he tries to broaden his appeal beyond the PAN, said Jorge Chabat, a Mexico City political analyst.
"If he doesn't win votes from the left and center, he won't win it on the PAN base alone," Chabat said.
A wonkish lawyer who holds a master's degree in public administration from Harvard, Calderon, 43, has a squeaky clean reputation.
Officially, Washington doesn't support Mr. Clean Hands or any other candidate in the July 2 vote, but conversations with U.S. officials suggest that they prefer him. Polls vary widely, but most have Calderon chipping away at the lead that Lopez Obrador has enjoyed for more than two years.
If he were to win, Calderon would follow fellow PAN member Vicente Fox, whose rise to the presidency in 2000 was the first time someone other than the PRI standard bearer had won the presidency in seven decades.
Calderon is more conservative than Fox. He made waves when he told a television interviewer that he opposed distribution of the morning-after pill, and in an interview with Knight Ridder, he said he opposed abortion, which is illegal in Mexico. He added that Mexican law, which permits abortion in cases of rape, incest, congenital defects and risks to a mother's life, needs no change.
"On the subject of abortion, I am pro-life, and I also see that it is a matter clearly regulated by law, and most of all in judicial terms well settled," he said.
After Brazil, Mexico has second-largest number of Roman Catholics in the hemisphere, but it's unclear how Calderon's position will play with voters. Many Mexicans favor contraception and legal access to abortion.
Calderon must try to benefit from President Fox's popularity while also establishing himself as his own man, not a Fox lackey. That's why Calderon's other moniker—"The Disobedient Son"—is splashed across the front of his campaign bus. It's a reference to how, in an upset victory within the PAN's party primary, he defeated the candidate Fox preferred succeed him.
Calderon said he'd continue Fox's fiscal discipline, which brought inflation below U.S. levels last year and reduced lending rates to less than 10 percent.
But he'll be quicker to criticize the United States in areas such as the prison camp for alleged terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, while following Fox's decision to condemn the lack of fundamental liberties in Cuba.
"Human rights are as valid in Guantanamo as they are in Havana," he said.
But Calderon said that human rights are a universal principle—which distinguishes him from Lopez Obrador, who's promised to return Mexico's foreign policy to its traditional policy of non-intervention, which means no criticism of Cuba, North Korea and Iran.
Cuba has become a dominant issue in Mexico's presidential race. The local government in Mexico City, run by the PRD, tried to shut down the Sheraton Maria Isabel Hotel in a move widely viewed as a reprisal for the U.S.-owned hotel's expulsion earlier of a visiting Cuban delegation after the hotel was warned hosting them might violate U.S. trade laws. Lopez Obrador promised to return to the non-intervention policy during a campaign rally a few days before the Mexico City action.
Calderon said the move against the Sheraton showed what Mexicans could expect if Lopez Obrador wins the presidency.
"It's a little bit of proof, an example of what the PRD is capable of doing with a little bit of power," he said. "A fourth-string functionary can close a hotel, not just leaving almost 1,000 Mexican families without work, but also striking a lethal blow to the image of Mexico abroad."
The Sheraton never fully closed, so working families weren't actually put on the street. City leaders acknowledged they used administrative penalties in an attempt to punish the Sheraton for what many Mexicans viewed as discrimination.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-CALDERON
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