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Candidate of Conservatives Wows 'em in Mexican Debate

THANKS to a victory in the May 12 Mexican presidential debate, the candidate for the conservative National Action Party (PAN) has leaped into second place for the August elections, pollsters and analysts say.

``There's no question that Diego [Fernandez de Cevallos] won, and the dynamics of the campaign have changed,'' says political scientist Juan Molinar at the Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. ``It's a three-man race now. And if [center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas Solorzano] doesn't make a comeback soon, it will be a two-man race, with Cardenas left behind.''

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Before last Thursday's unprecedented debate, the PAN trailed a distant third in the polls. The PAN candidate, Mr. Cevallos, was not well-known nor widely supported, even within his own party. But an estimated 40 million Mexicans saw the bearded lawyer and former congressman use the live broadcast to great advantage.

Clearly more at ease than his opponents (and with the least to lose), Cevallos effectively attacked the two other participants: Cardenas, for his record as former governor of the state of Michoacan, and Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for his economic forecasts as former secretary of budgeting and programming.

Taking aim at front-runner Mr. Zedillo, Cevallos said: ``I hope you can tell us, if your time allows, what happened to your goal of 6 percent growth for 1993.We are at least 15 times below that.'' He added, ``If we're going to make predictions, promises, and plans, then we would have to believe 15 times less than what you say.''

Zedillo, like Cardenas, seldom responded to Cevallos's slings, sticking instead to his prepared statement. Zedillo repeated the themes familiar to his campaign: microeconomic reforms, overhaul of the judicial system, fighting poverty, and clean elections.

Cardenas did not help his presentation when he lost his place in the opening statement and had to stop and search his notes.

``I don't know what happened. This debate was not in our best interest,'' said a dejected PRD official. PRD supporters hope Cardenas's scheduled meeting with Mayan Indian rebels in Chiapas yesterday will help him recover.

One snapshot poll taken in Mexico City and Monterrey by the daily newspaper Reforma shows that before the debate, 45 percent of the people planned to vote for Zedillo, 15 percent for Cardenas, and 14 percent for Cevallos. After the debate, Zedillo's support had dropped to 38 percent, Cevallos had jumped to 31 percent, and Cardenas had fallen to 11 percent.

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The PRI seems satisfied that Zedillo made no serious missteps. ``One candidate was certainly eloquent. One candidate made specific proposals. And one was neither eloquent nor specific,'' says Jose Angel Gurria, PRI secretary of international affairs.

But the PRD and PRI were damaged by Cevallos's outstanding performance. ``Diego was the clearest in his thinking. He offers the only real alternative,'' concludes Juan Rios, a school teacher of 40 years and lifelong PRI supporter.

PAN party supporters were jubilant over the results. The day after the debate, for the first time, PAN-istas appeared at major intersections in Mexico City, proudly carrying blue-and-white party flags and handing out pamphlets. ``The rank-and-file PAN members had doubts about their candidate,'' Mr. Molinar notes. ``Those doubts have been dispelled, and PAN-istas are thrilled that they really do have a presidential candidate.''

Some analysts question the PAN strategy of focusing attack on the PRD instead of the front-running party.

``Our strategy was: `You two come from the same root. You have a similar mind-set. We represent a truly different option,' '' says PAN deputy Fernando Estrada.

But La Jornada columnist Ricardo Aleman concludes the PAN used the debate to recuperate its position as the second political force in Mexico in order to cut a power-sharing deal with the PRI.

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