Mexican Ruling Party Takes Some Static During First National Television Debate : Democracy: Polls show PRI loses seven points but still leads. Opposition candidate Cardenas drops to third place.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

This nation's ruling party took a historic step toward opening the Mexican political system by participating in the first nationwide televised debate among presidential candidates--and found Friday that the move was costly.

Flash polls showed that the Thursday night debate trimmed up to seven points from the impressive lead of Ernesto Zedillo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

But the Yale-educated economist remained in first place, with 38% of those questioned saying they would make him president, according to polls conducted immediately after the 90-minute encounter.

Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the reticent candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, appeared to have suffered the most. He dropped from second to third place in flash voter polls in major cities. Cardenas, who refused to wear makeup for the cameras, is known for a deadpan style that appeals to rural voters.

Diego Fernandez de Cevallos, candidate of the right-wing National Action Party, or PAN, clearly won the debate, up to two-thirds of those questioned in four polls said. Viewers said they found him clear, convincing, knowledgeable and realistic. He was also responsible for the debate's few moments of humor, such as when he told Zedillo, "You are a good boy with high grades, but in democracy, you flunked."

Fernandez, who gained a reputation as a debater when in the Mexican Congress, more than doubled his support, moving from third place to a solid second in the presidential race, based on a poll conducted by the independent newspaper Reforma.

The newspaper surveyed a focus group, not the electorate at large. And its quick results, like those of all flash polls, contain significant margins of error, especially since the election is still months away, analysts cautioned.

But Thursday's debate offered the most visible sign of the nascent democratic reforms that are growing increasingly evident here as Mexico approaches its Aug. 21 presidential elections.

"The debate . . . is a great step forward in Mexico's democratic life and reflects the new political culture that our great nation is experiencing," President Carlos Salinas de Gortari said. "This change . . . is also the product of the electoral reforms that have been achieved through dialogue with the various political factions in our great country."

Reforms providing for citizen observers at voter precincts and turning control of the Federal Electoral Commission, which runs elections, over to citizens from the political parties were passed by Congress late Thursday.

The government this week also asked the United Nations to advise Mexican election observers and to issue a report on the computerized electoral system. Citizens have been invited to audit voter rolls and to inspect the computer center where ballots will be counted.

All these measures are a clear attempt to avoid charges of fraud that marred the 1988 presidential election and many other votes before and since.

Thursday's televised candidate confrontation played an important role in promoting a democratic image for Mexico. "The debate had the enormous challenge of restoring confidence in the political system, which it succeeded in doing," media analyst Raul Trejo said. "It exceeded expectations."

Fernandez and Cardenas, who many Mexicans believe was cheated out of a victory in the 1988 presidential election, attacked 65 years of rule by a single party, the PRI. While Cardenas largely ignored Fernandez, the PAN candidate energetically criticized Cardenas, a former PRI governor, who he said is obsessed with becoming president. "You have one face in the opposition and another in the government," Fernandez said.

Fernandez promised an end to the near-dictatorial powers of the presidency by strengthening the judicial and legislative branches of the federal government as well as state and municipal governments.

Cardenas, meantime, took a page from former President Ronald Reagan's debate book, charging, "No one is better off than in 1988." He promised an economic policy that takes people into account and a convention to revise the much-amended Mexican constitution. Analysts said that in trying to counteract a radical image, Cardenas looked as if he lacked fervor; he lost support as a result.

Zedillo, a former education minister, emphasized his campaign promises of turning economic growth into jobs, improving schools and reforming the criminal justice system to eliminate corruption and insecurity.

The debate took place in an atmosphere of increasing political awareness among Mexicans. More than 90% of the voting-age population--43 million people--have registered to vote and picked up their photo identification.

That awareness is expected to increase as a result of the debate, which an estimated 30 million television viewers saw, besides Mexicans who listened on the radio.

"The debate is . . . very important," said Jose Angel Gurria, PRI's secretary of international affairs. "It will have the salutary effect of interesting people in the process."

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