Presidential candidates in Mexico go on attack; Millions watch on TV as contenders lash out in first primary debate


MEXICO CITY -- Members of Mexico's ruling Revolutionary Institutional Party -- the PRI -- lashed out at each other like sworn enemies during this country's first presidential primary debate here.

They called each other two-faced liars and lousy leaders. And before a television audience of millions Wednesday night they said that the country their party has governed for 70 years is awash in crime, corruption and poverty.

The opposition loved it.

"The debate between the candidates of the PRI is a documented confession of the failure of their governments for 70 years," said a gleeful press release issued after the debate by the National Action Party, Mexico's conservative opposition. "It's clear now that to achieve true change the PRI must be removed from government."

"After the debate there is only one indisputable conclusion: none of the PRI's candidates would vote for their own party," said columnist F. Bartolome, writing in Mexico City's Reforma newspaper, whose editorial line is usually anti-PRI.

Example of new democracy

Wednesday's debate among four PRI presidential aspirants was billed as a shining example of new democracy for Mexico and the PRI. The party, which has controlled Mexico's presidency for seven decades, is struggling to rebuild its corrupt, autocratic image by holding its first primary election ever Nov. 7. The winner of that primary will go on to run next July 2 in Mexico's general election, in which the PRI is expected to face its biggest challenge yet from opposition candidates.

In the wake of the debate, polls are split over who emerged as a clear winner among the four PRI candidates. But analysts say one outcome is certain: The PRI will have to explain why the candidates implicitly trashed their own president and party by focusing so much on the country's troubles with crime, corruption and social inequality.

Saving its image

Luis Linares, a legislative analyst for the Mexican Senate, suggested, however, that the PRI could salvage its image by trying to play up the fact that it is the only party in Mexico that has scheduled an open primary in which any voter can cast a ballot.

The two leaders for the PRI's nomination are Francisco Labastida, the former interior secretary, and Roberto Madrazo, the former governor of Tabasco state.

The other two aspirants, Humberto Roque Villanueva and Manuel Bartlett, inched up in polls after the debate -- perhaps, analysts said, because they talked about proposals instead of attacking their rivals.

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