MEXICO CITY—Regardless of who won, one thing is clear after Tuesday night's Mexican presidential debate: The choice is now down to two candidates who offer starkly different visions of their country.
Only pro-business Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, known by its Spanish initials as PAN, and leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD, are serious contenders for voters' loyalties, an after-debate poll and interviews with people who watched the debate show.
The other major candidate, Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, at best will play the role of spoiler.
That marks a sea change in Mexican politics, which for most of the last century was dominated by the PRI, whose leaders often spouted leftist rhetoric but acted to protect business interests.
With Madrazo clearly not a contender, conservative and leftist forces are battling for control. Analysts said the new landscape recalled the years after independence from Spain, when conservatives and liberals fought continuously before the PRI emerged as a consensus force in the aftermath of the bloody 1910 revolution.
"For the first time in a century, the right and the left are again clearly defined as dominant political forces," said Sergio Aguayo, an El Colegio de Mexico professor and political analyst.
Pino Alberto Victoria Barrera, 39, a waiter at the Antiguo San Angel Inn restaurant in southern Mexico City, offered a similar assessment. "I felt that the only options left for Election Day are Calderon and Lopez Obrador," he said.
His comments were typical of more than 25 people Knight Ridder interviewed during and after the debate.
The biggest loser was Madrazo, Aguayo said, predicting that his supporters now will have to decide whether to vote for Calderon or Lopez Obrador. Those votes may well decide the election, he added.
"No one can anticipate which of the two will garner the bulk of dissatisfied PRI backers' votes," Aguayo said.
Tuesday was the first time Mexican voters had a chance to see Calderon, a former energy minister, and Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City, on the same stage. Their performance promised that the final days of the campaign before the vote July 2 will be fiery.
Lopez Obrador accused Calderon of helping his brother-in-law profit from government contracts. Calderon blamed Lopez Obrador for Mexico City's huge debt.
The two men's proposals were as different as their backgrounds. Calderon, 43, is a Harvard-educated lawyer who served in the Cabinet of the current president, Vicente Fox, the PAN candidate who toppled the PRI in 2000.
Lopez Obrador, 53, is a former PRI state party leader who bolted from the party and served as Mexico City mayor under the PRD.
"What do the PAN people want?" Lopez Obrador asked rhetorically. "They want a government that continues to be a committee in the service of a few. What do we want? We want a government for everybody, that the fatherland be for all."
Calderon got personal in his closing statement: "The program you are putting forward is a danger to Mexico because it could lead to high debt and economic crisis."
There were three other candidates on the stage—Madrazo and representatives of two minor parties—but they were, in the words of El Universal reporter Martha Anaya, "diluted amid the fight."
Illegal immigration to the United States played a secondary role to issues of crime and corruption.
Calderon said he'd seek a "migratory accord" with Washington similar to a recently passed U.S. Senate bill that would grant legal status to undocumented migrants who'd spent more than five years in the United States.
Lopez Obrador said creating more jobs within Mexico would reduce illegal immigration.
A telephone poll published Wednesday in the Mexico City newspaper Reforma found that 44 percent of 408 people queried declared Calderon the winner, against 30 percent for Lopez Obrador. But the paper said there was no clear victor because 10 percent said they were unsure who'd won, and the survey's margin of error was plus or minus 4.8 percent.
The newspaper El Universal organized five focus groups in major cities around the country to watch the debate, then asked participants whom they preferred. Calderon outpolled Lopez Obrador in only one.
In the Mexico City group, with which a Knight Ridder reporter viewed the debate, about half the 25 attendees raised their hands when asked whether Lopez Obrador had won. Two raised their hands when was asked if Calderon had won. A few raised hands for the two other candidates, Patricia Mercado and Roberto Campa.
But none responded when Madrazo's name was called.
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): MEXICO-POLITICS
GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060607 MEXICO bios and 20060607 MEXICO poll
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