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Pena Nieto Tests Lead in Mexico Vote Debate After Gaffes

May 4 (Bloomberg) -- Enrique Pena Nieto, the presidential candidate of Mexico’s once-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party, goes into this weekend’s televised debate with a 16-point lead in the polls after shrugging off early campaign gaffes.

The former governor of Mexico state just needs to avoid blunders in the two debates scheduled for May 6 and June 10 to all but ensure victory in the July 1 election, said Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at the Center for Economic Research & Teaching in Mexico City.

“The debates will be the last opportunity to strongly trip up Pena Nieto,” Crespo said. “Otherwise, he’s not exposing himself, and so there’s no way for him to lose points.”

The 45-year-old’s good looks and soap-opera star wife have benefitted his campaign, and he has learned to dodge difficult questions since stirring controversy by telling Spain’s El Pais newspaper in December that he wasn’t the “woman of the household” to explain why he didn’t know the price of tortillas, Crespo said. A week earlier Pena Nieto had struggled to name three books that influenced him at a literary fair.

Pena Nieto’s popularity also wasn’t damaged by his statement, in an interview with El Universal newspaper published Jan. 22, that he had fathered two children out of wedlock during his first marriage.

“Voters are simply not paying attention to that,” said Carlos Ramirez, an analyst with Eurasia Group, the New York-based political risk group, calling Pena Nieto’s resistance to criticism “the teflon effect.”

Opinion Poll

Pena Nieto had 37.9 percent of voter preferences in a Grupo Economistas Asociados-ISA poll taken May 1 to May 3. Josefina Vazquez Mota, candidate for the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, had 21.1 percent and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 59, of the Party of the Democratic Revolution had 17.1 percent. The poll surveyed 1,152 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

With the debate questions drafted by the candidate’s representatives, allowing little scope for spontaneous discussion, Pena Nieto should be able to avoid any pitfalls during the two-hour program.

“The likelihood of the debate changing significantly the preferences of voters is quite low,” Ramirez said in a research note yesterday. “A PRI that is looking stronger and more cohesive than ever strengthens our view that Pena Nieto will win the presidential election by a higher margin than originally anticipated.”

Keeping Quiet

Pena Nieto has inspired a following of young men who don wigs imitating his signature pompadour at public rallies.

The PRI candidate avoids exposure by giving few details about his proposals because he is so far ahead of his opponents, said Javier Oliva, a political analyst at Mexico’s National Autonomous University. “Pena Nieto’s great advantage is that he doesn’t say anything.”

The press office of Pena Nieto’s campaign said in an e-mail late yesterday that the candidate is eager to discuss his proposals openly and to debate them on Sunday.

Vasquez Mota has been unable to narrow his lead. Since the campaign formally kicked off March 30, she has been heckled outside a restaurant during a campaign stop and had a dizzy spell while giving a speech. PAN member and former president Vicente Fox said last month that it would take a “small miracle” for her to win.

‘Conviction of Victory’

“I have the conviction of victory and I say that not out of a sense of arrogance or pride, or because I am out of touch with reality,” Vazquez Mota said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday. “There is no election that is decided beforehand.”

Many Mexicans have turned against the PAN after the country’s drug war cost more than 47,000 lives in the past five years. Current President Felipe Calderon ordered troops onto the street to tackle the cartels in 2006, helping trigger the violence.

“Since Calderon started to fight crime, extortion and kidnapping have gone up,” said Daniel Gonzalez, a shoe-shiner from Mexico state, who said he won’t vote for Vazquez Mota. “Every day it feels like the violence is coming closer to home.”

Pena Nieto has said he would refocus the drug war by going after the worst crimes such as murder and extortion, expanding the federal police force and building better coordinated state police corps.

“It’s my commitment to give the people better results, to really achieve peace and tranquility in Mexico,” he told foreign journalists April 30.

Economic Record

The PRI’s strong presence in Congress will also allow him to push through key legislation to boost the economy, such as increasing private investment in the country’s oil industry, he said. The party was in power for 71 years until 2000.

The PAN hasn’t provided the broad economic success or the end to corruption that it pledged, Crespo said. While the economy expanded 3.9 percent last year, growth has averaged 2 percent over the past decade, compared with 4 percent in Brazil and 4.6 percent in Colombia, according to figures from the International Monetary Fund.

Vazquez Mota has said she would fight corruption by removing lawmakers’ immunity to prosecution, while a campaign adviser, Macario Schettino, said in a March 22 interview that they would attack impunity by overhauling the prosecution and investigation bodies in Mexico.

Vazquez Mota has also said she would float shares of state-owned oil company Petroleos Mexicanos on the stock exchange.

Soccer Match

Lopez Obrador opposes most assets sales in the oil industry. He has said that the proposals from his opponents “will deteriorate the sector in every sense.”

A soccer match scheduled to be aired at the same time as the first televised debate will diminish the impact of the candidates’ face-off, said Ramirez.

After a campaign that has failed to stir the same level of interest as the 2006 election, which Calderon won by less than a percentage point, some people may prefer to watch Tigres play Morelia on another channel, he said.

Vazquez Mota “has to go after Pena Nieto and continue attacking his credibility,” Ramirez said. “That’s the only way that something could start biting for voters. But it’s becoming more difficult as the election draws closer.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Nacha Cattan in Mexico City at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at

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