Mexico's Obrador Keeps His Cool as Rivals Slam Him in Debate

(Bloomberg) -- Mexican candidates picked apart front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s proposals to improve public safety and combat corruption in the first presidential debate, which featured some fireworks but nothing likely to substantially shift the current poll standings.

In the first of three debates ahead of the July 1 election, Lopez Obrador’s four rivals sought to eat away at his commanding poll lead, looking to shoot holes in his plans for remaking the nation’s security and economic models.

Lopez Obrador’s closest rival, Ricardo Anaya, who heads a coalition of right and left-leaning parties, led the charge, attacking Lopez Orbrador over his proposals to grant amnesty to criminals in some cases and to have a major role in choosing an independent prosecutor, saying such policies would increase violence and graft. Lopez Obrador, departing from past form, offered a measured and restrained defense when attacked and largely kept his cool over the course of the two-hour nationally televised face-off Sunday night.

"The attacks against Lopez Obrador won’t have big repercussions because it’s mostly old news that voters have already heard," said Aldo Munoz, a political analyst at the Autonomous University of the State of Mexico. "I don’t think voter preferences will move based on this debate."

Peso Plunge

Anaya’s debating skills and pointed criticisms of Lopez Obrador’s campaign plank earned him a tie with the front-runner among viewers of the debate, according to one telephone poll by Reforma newspaper. Even so, the runner-up trails by more than 20 percentage points in the latest figures compiled by Bloomberg’s Poll Tracker.

Mexico’s currency plunged overnight and in early trading Monday after Lopez Obrador avoided serious missteps and held his ground. The peso has been the the worst performing major currency over the past week as investors began to price in a win by Lopez Obrador. At 2:40 p.m., the currency was down 1.9 percent to 18.8875 per dollar, pushing its five-day decline to 4.7 percent.

Jaded by nine of 10 decades under PRI party rule, and 12 years under Anaya’s PAN party, the electorate is seeking radical change, and polls show voters are betting on Lopez Obrador to bring that about. Rising violence -- homicides are up 20 percent in the first quarter compared to last year’s record high -- are also driving them into his camp.

Who’s ahead in Mexico’s election? For Bloomberg Poll Tracker, click here.

Against that backdrop, Lopez Obrador’s proposals to increase spending on social programs and halt gasoline price increases in real terms have struck a popular chord.

Trailing Lopez Obrador and Anaya is former Finance Minister Jose Antonio Meade and two independents, former first lady Margarita Zavala and former Nuevo Leon Governor Jaime Rodriguez. The latter two have little chance of rising to competitive levels, but could siphon votes away from the others.

Lopez Obrador may not have responded as well as others in the debates -- he said leading by example will be a key policy in fighting corruption -- but controlling his temper went a long way in preventing his rivals from gaining ground, said Carlos Petersen, an analyst at Washington-based Eurasia Group. In the 2006 presidential election, Lopez Obrador’s lead began to close after he failed to show up to the first debate, and after he’d called then President Vicente Fox names in public. He eventually lost to Felipe Calderon by less than one percentage point.

"He stuck to his message and stayed calm," Petersen said. "This is more about the perception of radicalism that voters had of him from previous elections. If he stays calm, he doesn’t risk scaring those voters who want change and are considering him as an option, and he avoids the anti-AMLO block from growing."

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