MEXICO CITY—After more than two years of leading national polls, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador's pursuit of Mexico's presidency appears to be in trouble.
The most recent surveys show Lopez Obrador, the left-leaning candidate of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), for the first time slipping into a statistical dead heat with Felipe Calderon, his rival from the conservative National Action Party (PAN).
The third main candidate in the race, Roberto Madrazo, of the long dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), was a distant third.
In addition, a Tuesday night debate that Lopez Obrador skipped was declared a major success for Calderon, and political experts said they expected Calderon would get a significant bounce with Mexican voters as a result.
"He will undoubtedly benefit greatly," said Judit Bokser-Liwerant, the head of post-graduate political studies at the Mexico's National Autonomous University. "Of all the participants, he was ... the most serious and had the most information."
"It's obvious to me now that the race will be Calderon and Lopez Obrador," said Sergio Aguayo, an expert on Mexican politics at the prestigious Colegio de Mexico.
The recent slide for AMLO, as he's known here, comes as a result of a series of negative television ads by Calderon and more than a few missteps by Lopez Obrador, including a series of speeches that many considered rude and disrespectful of current President Vicente Fox.
Political analysts said it's still too early to call the July 2 vote, however, and that shifts are likely in voter sentiment as Mexicans take a closer look at the candidates. A second and final debate, in which Lopez Obrador will participate, is scheduled for June 6.
Tuesday's debate was considered the beginning of the home stretch in the presidential race.
"People before were expressing just general likes and dislikes," said Jeffrey A. Weldon, who directs a political science program at a Mexico City university. "Now they're beginning to look seriously at the candidates themselves and their characters and their platforms."
Lopez Obrador, 52, who was a popular Mexico City mayor, mobilized millions of voters about a year ago when the federal attorney general threatened to prosecute him over an otherwise minor dispute regarding an access road to a hospital. The government dropped the case in the face of massive protest, and Lopez Obrador, who'd been No. 1 for more than a year in surveys, rode that wave into the presidential race.
But recent polls have shown his popularity slipping, especially in the wake of Calderon television ads that compared Lopez Obrador to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
One ad included a video clip of Lopez Obrador telling Fox to "shut up"—a clip Bokser-Liwerant said angered Mexicans because Lopez Obrador failed "to respect the presidential institution."
A poll published Tuesday by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma reflected the damage. The poll showed Lopez Obrador with 35 percent, behind the 38 percent for the 43-year-old Calderon. The poll's margin of error was 2.5 percentage points.
An April 17 poll by El Universal newspaper showed Lopez Obrador still in the lead, but with Calderon inching closer.
Lopez Obrador campaign officials authorized to speak to the media weren't available to comment Wednesday, but Calderon aides said the campaign's momentum has shifted their way.
"We've been doing a very efficient job, more than anything a job highlighting proposals and ideas for the future of Mexico," said Max Cortazar, Calderon's communication director.
Analysts believe Tuesday night's debate may prove crucial in the final months of the campaign. Without Lopez Obrador, the match in general pitted Calderon against Madrazo.
Early in the debate, Madrazo accused Calderon of inexperience. Calderon responded by showing a photograph of a high-rise building in Miami, where Madrazo owns an apartment, and accused Madrazo of evading taxes.
Calderon's attack was helped by two minor candidates who shared the stage, including Roberto Campa of the New Alliance Party, who accused Madrazo of living a lavish lifestyle and skirting income taxes in Mexico.
Two polls conducted by Reforma after the debate gave Calderon the victory. The first, a national telephone survey of 405 people, found that 43 percent of those who saw or heard the debate thought Calderon had won, with 18 percent giving the victory to Madrazo. Another 18 percent said no one won, while the others divided their sympathies between the minor candidates.
The second poll, among 295 political activists invited by Reforma to watch the debate in Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey, gave Calderon the edge over Madrazo, 71 percent to 11 percent.
No margin of error was given for either poll.
Calderon's strong showing suggests a difficult road ahead for Lopez Obrador. Lopez Obrador made his reputation by standing up against the federal government from his base in Mexico City, but he's never had the national networks enjoyed by Madrazo, whose PRI holds many governorships, or Calderon, who can count on the support of Fox, a PAN member and a skillful campaigner.
Lopez Obrador, whose campaign so far has consisted of big rallies with friendly crowds and few unscripted interviews, may have to change tactics, experts say.
"He's either going to decide to put money into regular spots, or something else," said Weldon, a political scientist at the Autonomous Mexican Technological Institute. "At some point, you're running for president, you actually have to be in the national media."
(Garcia reports for The San Jose Mercury News.)
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Calderon, Lopez Obrador and Madrazo
ARCHIVE GRAPHIC on KRT Direct (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20051114 MEXICO candidates
Need to map