The presidential candidate of Mexico's governing party went on the attack in the country's last major debate Sunday ahead of the July 1 vote, accusing her two rivals of representing a return to a chaotic and authoritarian past.
Josefina Vazquez Mota, having fallen to third place in opinion polls, tried to turn around her flagging campaign by sharply criticizing front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the country's former ruling party and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution.
Ms. Vazquez Mota, the first female candidate from a major party in Mexico's history, accused Mr. Pena Nieto, a former state governor, of hiding in the bathroom during a May stop at a university where he was heckled by students. The heckling has since become a full-blown protest movement against the front-runner.
"Mr. Pena Nieto, we don't want the kind of person who is going to hide in the bathroom pretending to govern this country," said Ms. Vazquez Mota, candidate for the National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon.
Mr. Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that governed Mexico for 71 years until 2000, called Ms. Vazquez Mota's allegations a "lie," saying he never hid from students and that their movement was a sign of a more democratic Mexico.
Just three weeks before the election, the telegenic PRI candidate has 43% support compared with 29% for Mr. Lopez Obrador, and 25% for Ms. Vazquez Mota, according to an average of six surveys from different firms put together by pollster Mitofsky.
Mr. Pena Nieto has lost some support amid the student protests in recent weeks and amid broader concerns about the return of the PRI, which was dogged by corruption scandals and economic crises toward the end of its long reign.
Just hours before the debate, thousands of students turned out in Mexico City to protest against Mr. Pena Nieto, 45.
Gaining in the polls has been Mr. Lopez Obrador, a 58-year-old former Mexico City mayor who narrowly lost the 2006 election and refused to recognize Mr. Calderon as president, leading to months of street protests.
Most analysts, however, don't think Mr. Lopez Obrador will catch Mr. Pena Nieto.
For many Mexicans, none of the candidates appeal. Many fret over the return of the PRI, but they are also tired of the ruling PAN after 12 years in power and wary of Mr. Lopez Obrador's perceived populism.
Gabriel Quadri, a fourth candidate from the New Alliance Party who trails in the polls at 3.2% support, tried to sum up the mood during the debate by saying Mr. Pena Nieto represented a party of political dinosaurs, Ms. Vazquez Mota an inept party, and Mr. Lopez Obrador a populist authoritarian party.
Mr. Quadri also came under attack from Ms. Vazquez Mota for being the candidate of a party seen as tied to the head of Mexico's powerful teachers' union.
During the two-hour debate, Mr. Pena Nieto focused the most on proposals, promising to create an anti-corruption watchdog agency, shrink the size of Mexico's congress, and allow citizens who don't belong to a party to both propose laws and run for office.
Mr. Lopez Obrador promised to use the money from fighting corruption, reducing government bureaucrat salaries and eliminating tax loopholes to boost public investment and spur economic growth.
President Calderon himself got in on the debate, taking to his Twitter account to rebut a statement by the leftist that he could save some 300 billion pesos (about $25 billion) simply by cutting bureaucrats' salaries.
"If the government fired all its top officials, the savings would be 2 billion pesos, not 300…." Mr. Calderon wrote.
None of the candidates spent much, if any, time addressing Mexico's drug-related violence, in which more than 50,000 people have been killed in the past five years.
Ms. Vazquez Mota spent much of her time on the attack. She accused Mr. Pena Nieto of having created a spy agency with public money during his term as governor. She also said he dedicated his university thesis to his predecessor as governor of the state of Mexico, a politician whose term was marred by allegations of corruption.
Mr. Pena Nieto said his thesis was 20 years old and that he had also dedicated it to his parents and siblings.
Ms. Vazquez Mota also threw quite a bit of mud at Mr. Lopez Obrador, whom she accused of joining the PRI in 1971—three years after the government is believed to have killed scores of student protesters during 1968 student protests. Mr. Lopez Obrador later left the PRI to help form the leftist PRD.
Mr. Lopez Obrador responded that he was a freshman at high school at the time.
By David Luhnow, The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2012
Write to David Luhnow at email@example.com