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Mexican Opposition Candidate Hopes Trip North Plays Well Back Home

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There is one place where being an “Inside the Beltway” candidate counts as a plus with voters: Mexico.

At least that’s the calculation of Mexican opposition presidential contender Vicente Fox, who arrived in Washington on Monday to shake hands with administration officials, specialists and members of Congress--and to convince the millions expected to cast ballots back home that he is taken seriously where it counts: the United States.

“Today the electorate wants to make sure that we have the relationship, the capacity to deal, to negotiate constructively and effectively with the U.S., with any country in the world,” said Fox, a charismatic former Coca-Cola executive whose underdog campaign for president against a party that has held power since 1929 has been energized by recent polls showing him narrowing the race.

For his visit to Washington, Fox shed his customary cowboy boots, jeans and rancho swagger for a dark blue suit, loafers and somber demeanor. And he sought, in meetings with White House drug policy director Barry R. McCaffrey and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering, to project the gravitas Mexican voters expect in their leaders.

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“If Fox is perceived as presidential in the U.S., that somehow rebounds and reinforces his image in Mexico,” said Delal Baer, chairman of the Mexico Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “If the U.S. officials think that Fox is a potential president, that generates momentum in Mexico. And that generates more money and more votes.”

For their part, U.S. officials have reason to fit Fox into their schedules. If the polls are to be believed, he has a better shot at the presidency than any other opposition figure since the Mexican revolution. The country has been dominated by one party since the Institutional Revolutionary Party was founded in 1929.

Election Model Bears Similarities to U.S.

Fox, who achieved prominence as one of the first of a crop of opposition governors who came to power during the past decade, is a socially conservative member of the country’s largest opposition party, the National Action Party. Founded in the 1930s by Catholics whose forebears fought a guerrilla war against anticlerical generals, it is supported today by much of Mexico’s business elite.

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In a country with a tradition of ballot-stuffing and vote-buying, Mexican opposition candidates have never been thought to have much of a chance. But this year’s presidential election is the first to be organized by a fully autonomous agency, the Federal Electoral Institute. And, so far, the Mexican campaign bears more resemblance to the American model than to the corrupt elections of the country’s past. Competing parties are spending millions of dollars on television advertising. U.S. political consultants James Carville and Dick Morris are working for PRI candidate Francisco Labastida and Fox, respectively. And pollsters are working overtime.

For all the change in the air, Fox is fighting a tough battle against Labastida, who has the advantage of a finely tuned party machine that has never garnered its presidential candidate less than 50% of the vote. And with Mexico’s economy one of Latin America’s most robust, it is not at all clear that Mexicans will vote this year for change.

Two February polls showed Fox trailing Labastida by only 4 to 7 percentage points. But that is not as encouraging for Fox supporters as it might seem. Polls in Mexico are historically inaccurate. They rely heavily on samples of urban voters, and 30% of Mexicans live in rural areas. Rural voters, many of whom are isolated and poorly educated, traditionally vote for the PRI.

So why, with the election coming up July 2, did Fox take his campaign to a city where no ballots will be cast? The answer, say top aides to Fox and analysts, lies in Mexico’s unique attitude toward the United States, a mixture of insecurity, admiration and disgust.

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Important to Have Powerful Connections

Publicly, Mexicans may say “Gringo, go home.” But with their country heavily dependent on the United States for trade, investment and help in the fight against drug trafficking, Mexican voters want to know that their leaders have powerful American friends.

The Clinton administration says it plays no favorites in the race. But when the PRI grabbed the initiative by holding Mexico’s first presidential primary in November, President Clinton called Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo to congratulate him. That drew the pique of Fox, who has accused the United States of taking sides ever since.

“He’s making it very clear that the U.S. cannot continue to think that the only option for Mexico is the PRI,” said Fox advisor Adolfo Aguilar Zinser. “He wants Mexican voters to understand that the U.S. cannot decide the election because of its de facto support for the PRI.”

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As he made the rounds on Monday, Fox did his best to act like the president he wants to be. At a breakfast in a Senate office building, he told several dozen administration and congressional staffers, investors and academics that he planned to run “the most professional, honest, efficient government in Mexico ever.”

At the State Department and at a meeting with Clinton’s national security staff, Fox promised that as president he would usher in an era of “governability, laws and consolidation” of the disparate political parties in Mexico.

At a meeting scheduled for today with Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner, Fox said he would tell her: “It’s not with walls and it’s not with laws that we’re going to keep Mexicans from going to the U.S. It is with intelligent, long-term planning together.”

Fox said he would return to the United States soon, probably to Texas and California, to try to mobilize the large populations of Mexicans in those states to tell their relatives and friends back home to vote for him.

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On that visit, aides said, he will wear cowboy boots again.


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