COLUMN ONE : At Eye of the Storm in Mexico : As chaos swirls across his nation, Ernesto Zedillo has been thrust into the role of presidential heir apparent. Many questions surround the reticent technocrat who was little known until two months ago.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ernesto Zedillo, the man most likely to become the next president of Mexico, was taking on one of his nation's toughest problems, the peasant uprising in Chiapas.

First, he met with the southern state's governor. Then he drove 50 miles of winding road to visit the bishop who had mediated between the rebels and the government--talks that collapsed after the March 23 slaying of Luis Donaldo Colosio, whom Zedillo succeeded as candidate of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Zedillo twice addressed citizens of the violence-torn state from local radio stations. Under heavy guard, he paused for pictures at a town square that rebels had briefly occupied on New Year's Day. Then he flew back to the capital. Not a single public appearance was scheduled.

That visit a few weeks ago was vintage Zedillo. One task--Chiapas--checked off the list; no bold moves, no risks, no crowds.

That cautious approach has boosted the electrician's son from junior economic analyst to presidential candidate in 23 years. Ironically, it has also thrust a man whom friends and critics alike describe as orderly and disciplined into the center of the most chaotic period in six decades of Mexican history.

Besides the Chiapas rebellion and Colosio's assassination, the police chief of Tijuana and Guadalajara's cardinal have been killed in the last 11 months as battles between drug traffickers have become more frequent. Prominent businessmen have been kidnaped in broad daylight on busy Mexico City streets where people used to feel safe.

In reaction, an estimated $10 billion has poured out of the country so far this year, threatening to destabilize the peso and set off a new round of inflation.

At this crucial juncture in their history, Mexicans are being told to trust their country to a 42-year-old technocrat whose name most of them had never heard until just two months ago.

Mexicans knew so little about Zedillo when he was nominated March 29 that loyal activists rushing to party headquarters to show their support misspelled his name on their signs. Since then, he has campaigned dutifully and hard. But pressing the flesh does not come naturally to him.

Waving to a Mexico City crowd one last time from the running board of his gray Suburban, he swings himself into the passenger seat, straightening his zip-front jacket and running a brush through his wavy salt-and-pepper hair.

"People really like to get close," he explains sheepishly, straightening his gold wire-rimmed glasses.

But getting close to Ernesto Zedillo is not easy.

He has built a wall of reserve around himself on his way to the presidential nomination that now leaves him dependent on party machinery to run his campaign and beholden to that machine if he wins. Unlike most Mexican politicians, who tend to accumulate camp followers, he has kept his circle of advisers tight, substituting rather than adding supporters.

"As he climbed the ladder, it became more difficult for him to remain open," one longtime friend said. "Everyone wants to get close to him, and he has to manage his time."

Critics take a less benign view.

"He has moved up the ladder alone," said Jesus Martin del Campo, an official of the National Union of Educational Workers and a deputy for the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party. "He seems extremely isolated, in his own world."

Zedillo even prefers individual sports: racquetball while studying economics at Yale in the 1970s, tennis later as a promising young central bank official, and now cycling as a father of five. Because he has built his career by obeying the unwritten rules of Mexican politics--obedience and silence--no one is really sure what Zedillo will do if elected.

He leads no clear political or ideological movement; until his nomination he was just another member of the elite group of foreign-educated economists who have run this country for the last decade. At the time of Colosio's slaying, he was the candidate's campaign manager, succeeding as the ruling party presidential candidate thanks to the one vote that counts, that of outgoing President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.

His lack of recognition, his personal reserve and the sharp tenor voice that quickly grows hoarse addressing large crowds might, in many countries, leave Zedillo with as good a shot at the presidency as, say, a Paul Tsongas. But in Mexico, where the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) machine has elected the last 13 presidents, he is a virtual shoo-in this August, far ahead of his eight challengers in every national poll.

For its campaign rallies, the PRI is already filling Mexico City's domed Sports Palace with taxi drivers, farm workers and garbage collectors to cheer the candidate--or risk five days' suspension from work if they do not show.

And on pro-government television networks, Zedillo has shared memories of his impoverished childhood, promoting a Horatio Alger image to fill the void of information about himself.

The message is clear: Mexico is a land of opportunity where an electrician's son raised in Mexicali can become president--and a vote for Zedillo will prove it.

He is playing to one of Mexican society's most important beliefs about itself--that this is a country that promotes social mobility. That belief has been sorely tested since 1982 as wages eroded and government spending was slashed, leaving less money for schools, scholarships and bureaucratic jobs, the traditional paths out of poverty.

Only 1% of the 1,155 top Mexican bureaucrats are the children of manual workers, said Roderic Camp, author of a forthcoming book about political recruitment in Mexico. Just 83 are graduates of Zedillo's undergraduate alma mater, the National Polytechnical Institute, a school for children of the working class, founded to counterbalance the perceived elitism of the Mexican National Autonomous University, where more than half the bureaucracy studied.

"That is indicative of some access to upward social mobility," Camp said in an interview. "But it has been decreasing rather than increasing."

Zedillo addresses that issue in the time-honored PRI fashion: speaking as if he were an opposition candidate campaigning for change rather than a member of the "compact Cabinet," the closest advisers to the current president.

"The truth is that Mexico has a tremendous problem of distribution of income," Zedillo said in a recent interview. "There is an enormous concentration, and one of the ways to correct this problem is spending more on people. Much more investment is needed in the country's human capital, particularly among the poorest and most disadvantaged people."

As Zedillo points out at nearly every campaign stop, he knows about being poor.

Born in Mexico City two days after Christmas in 1951, he spent most of his childhood in Pueblo Nuevo, a transient neighborhood in the border town of Mexicali. People who live behind its graffiti-covered walls have modest ambitions: opening a garage or taking a fashion-design course.

"Leaving Mexicali at 15 or 16 to come study in Mexico City was a tremendous challenge," said Saul Trejo, the older brother of a junior high school friend of Zedillo's. Besides the traffic and other problems of city life he had to cope with, students from the capital tended to make fun of classmates from the provinces.

The mid-1960s were tumultuous, with most of the ferment centered in the two public universities and their network of feeder high schools, including Zedillo's Vocational School No. 5. Classes were constantly interrupted by strikes and demonstrations.

"Based on that experience, he did not form a favorable opinion of public higher education," said a teacher who worked with Zedillo decades later at the Public Education Ministry.

Zedillo finished a five-year program in less than four years with a record grade-point average. He also met his wife, fellow student Nilda Patricia Velasco.

"We never dreamed of doing postgraduate degrees abroad," said one classmate, who like many of those interviewed asked not to be identified. "At most we hoped for a scholarship to a short course somewhere."

That changed for Zedillo in his third year of college, when Trejo came back to Mexico with a doctorate from Yale and looked him up.

Trejo offered the 19-year-old Zedillo a job in President Luis Echeverria's strategic planning department, alongside the brightest young economists from Mexico's most prestigious universities. Showing off their English, junior analysts called themselves "el underground."

Zedillo also met Leopoldo Solis, the crusty economist who ran the department.

"He helped me finish school quickly," Zedillo said. "He encouraged me to study English. He gave me academic recommendations. He helped me to continue my studies, and when I got back to Mexico, he offered me a job at the Bank of Mexico."

With Solis' help, he got a government scholarship to Yale. On finishing his Ph.D., Zedillo went to work at the central bank's economic research department, known as "the medical service" because it was full of doctorates.

He survived the political downfall of his mentor, Solis, and in 1983 was put in charge of the government fund for the hundreds of private companies caught with dollar debt when the peso was devalued in 1982.

"He saved a lot of Mexican companies from bankruptcy," a government source said.

Along with the responsibility went one of a dozen Bank of Mexico memberships in the Club de Golf Mexico country club, where Zedillo played tennis with top bank officials.

His tennis partners recall him as a warrior on the court. But what other club members remember is that Zedillo always carried a bunch of papers with him and worked frantically at every game break. "He didn't know how to relax," one man recalled.

Friends say that Zedillo does not relax in public; he relaxes at his Mexico City home, where he roughhouses with his children and cooks on the grill. The multilevel house, filled with dark wood furniture, is one of the few places where he looks comfortable without a tie.

Wearing a sweater reminiscent of Ozzie Nelson's cardigan, he sips tequila and jokes about the screams of his children playing in the kitchen. Success has made such moments rare.

"This has come at a great sacrifice of his time and private life," one former colleague said. "He had to develop rapidly, and that required changes in his personality."

Zedillo has become more serious and controlled, friends said. As part of the "underground," he pulled pranks, such as once telling a co-worker that he was about to be fired. The man fretted for days before finding out it was not true.

Two decades later, teachers union representatives said they found Education Minister Zedillo humorless when they invited him to El Habito, a Mexico City comedy club known for political satire. Zedillo sat stone-faced as actors mimicked him in a skit.

"He has become more and more interested in politics to the exclusion of other interests," one friend said.

How good Zedillo is at politics depends on whom you ask.

Supporters point to the consensus-building required to decentralize the educational system. Detractors remember his 11-month tenure as public education minister differently, full of scandals over inaccurate textbooks and fights with the teachers union.

"The task overwhelmed him," Martin del Campo said.

Zedillo also seemed overwhelmed at first by the presidential campaign but is adjusting. In contrast to his earlier, low-key visit, on his most recent trip to Chiapas a few days ago, he congratulated his party's gubernatorial nominee at a mass rally.

He still looks stiff and uncomfortable at those big rallies, but he has introduced a more intimate format of Bill Clinton-style neighborhood forums in which he shines.

On the campaign trail, Zedillo fields questions about pensions, prostitution and public works, taking notes on suggestions and often complementing the questioners. He appears to truly enjoy such policy discussions.

But at the end of these forums come the inevitable round of handshakes.

Zedillo seems only too glad to get back in the van where he can put on his tie and head off for a private meeting with the president-elect of Costa Rica, far from the crowds.

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