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The Making of a President : In Mexico, Candidate Campaigns Hard Despite Being Shoo-In

Times Staff Writer

They came from the poorest colonias, or neighborhoods, and from the most well-appointed homes. Wealthy industrialists made the trip. So did poor campesinos.

“Welcome your candidate!” declared the booming voice from the loudspeaker, resounding above the throngs assembled downtown. “Solicit support for your communities!”

And, as the great man himself approached--slender, baldish, not someone you would necessarily notice in a crowd--a deep cheer erupted from those gathered on the streets.

“Viva Salinas de Gortari! Viva Salinas de Gortari!”

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The presidential campaign, Mexican style, came to Baja California this week, displaying all the pomp, predictability and hype that characterize this once-every-six-years ritual.

In this border community east of Tijuana, hundreds of area residents, dressed warmly to ward off the unusual chill, turned out Tuesday to pay their respects to Carlos Salinas de Gortari, the presidential candidate of Mexico’s ruling and long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, known by its Spanish acronym as the PRI.

Salinas, a 39-year-old economist and former graduate student at Harvard University, is making a 3 1/2-day campaign swing through the border state of Baja California, his first visit since being named the PRI candidate in October, after months of speculation.

Stopover Was Brief

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During a brief stopover here, the smiling Salinas made no speeches but chatted amiably with well-wishers as he walked through the crowds, surrounded by a circle of brawny security officers who forcibly opened paths amid the crush of sign-carrying onlookers and journalists. Later, Salinas addressed a group discussing women’s issues in Tijuana and was scheduled to host a call-in television talk show, the latter an indication of the increasing use of U.S.-style technology in Mexican elections.

As the candidate of the ruling party, Salinas, former budget and planning secretary in the outgoing administration of President Miguel de la Madrid, is the likely next president of Mexico. The PRI has dominated Mexican politics for more than half a century; it has never lost a governor’s seat, much less the coveted presidency. After the announcement of his candidacy, Salinas’ unassuming image became ubiquitous in Mexico, virtually overnight; now, his name and face are everywhere.

Since the winner is basically preordained, the presidential race has already lost much of its drama for an American audience. But things work differently south of the border. Salinas is following a grueling campaign schedule and is likely to continue doing so until the election in July. Judging by the campaign’s fever pitch, one would suspect that Salinas is fighting for his political life.

“This time is very important; we’re trying to build up a consensus of opinion,” explained one party strategist. “The amount of support Salinas can generate during the campaign will have a lot to do with how much of his program will be accepted.”

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Salinas will need all the help he can get, as some difficult decisions lie ahead. Mexico is enmeshed in its deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression; inflation is rampant, the foreign debt is astronomical and standards of living are falling rapidly. Fiscal austerity--rarely a popular political posture--is likely to be a hallmark of his Administration.

In his effort to build a national consensus, Salinas, a government technocrat not known for his personal charisma, is working hard to reach out to the people, according to aides. Dressed casually in a sheepskin coat and open-neck blue shirt, the longtime bureaucrat smiled and seemed to enjoy mixing with residents here Tuesday, projecting a less formal and looser style than the current president.

The candidate’s visit amounted to old-fashioned politics, the type Americans associate more closely with local races for sheriff and city councilman than for national office. “In some of the smaller towns, the visit of the candidate can be the biggest thing that ever happens,” noted one Mexican observer.

In Tecate, which retains some of its small-town character, a festive, almost carnival atmosphere marked the coming of the candidate. Before Salinas ever arrived, the well-organized party machinery had its supporters out in strength, displaying enthusiastic and colorful banners bearing an alphabet-soup of acronyms of PRI-affiliated organizations and neighborhoods. There was no sign of protest, although the opposition parties have vocal followings throughout northern Mexico.

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A key component of the PRI’s strength has been its ability to represent the interests of a wide range of socioeconomic groups, from peasants to professionals, and to absorb all philosophies from the left to the right of the political spectrum. All those divergent individuals, groups and points of view that constitute the party were out in force for the candidate’s visit. While the wealthy and influential gathered in a room at PRI headquarters here and got to shake Salinas’ hand, others stood on the chilly streets hoping for a glimpse of the candidate, known until now only through media accounts.

“We’re here to express our support for Salinas,” said Javier Cardenas, 22, of Tijuana, who was holding one end of a long banner lauding the candidate on behalf of himself and other workers in the local offices of the nation’s social security system. “We think he can provide the kind of leadership Mexico needs right now.”

But Cardenas and others present have more in mind than simply registering their presence. As in old-time U.S. ward politics, expressing open support for the party and its candidates is often viewed in Mexico as a means of ensuring assistance for one’s job, community or other interests. In a nation where thousands of government employees have lost their jobs in cost-cutting moves, workers would clearly like the future president to believe that their departments have been loyal--and perhaps should be spared the fiscal scalpel.

In a similar spirit of the quid pro quo, one woman chanted during the candidate’s visit: “We’re freezing out here. Remember our community.”

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In fact, many participants spoke of needed improvements that they hope would flow from the candidate’s visit.

“We need more pavement in our colonia; we need more drinking water,” said Lucio Gallardo, a grizzled 47-year-old laborer and party representative from the Tecate neighborhood known as Colonia Colinas del Cuchuma. “The lighting could also be better. And we need telephones; now there is only one public telephone.”

Aware of such sentiment, Salinas has instituted a program known as “the candidate’s mailbox,” in which citizens send letters to him expressing their major needs. The hope is that the requests will be answered.

Today, Salinas is scheduled to visit several neighborhoods in Tijuana before traveling to Rosarito Beach and Ensenada. He is scheduled to leave for Baja California Sur on Thursday.

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