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Mexican Challenger Tries to Light Voters' Fires

After soaring to the top of presidential polls in May, Fernandez dropped from public view. He now hopes a media blitz can restore his prospects for ending the ruling party's 65-year rule.

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DARK eyes flashing, stabbing the air with his finger, Diego Fernandez de Cevallos is doing what he does best: attack and counterattack.

``As I predicted, as our strength grows ... there comes a cavalcade of insults, slander, defamation, and lies,'' growls the National Action Party (PAN) candidate for president of Mexico, working an audience of some 1,000 residents in a poor barrio on the fringes of Mexico City.

``From one day to the next, I've become a sinister man ... a lawyer of abortionists, and lover of narco-traffickers. My answer is very simple,'' says the bearded criminal lawyer, pausing for effect. ``Present your proof.''

Brusque. Cigar-chomping. Witty. Pugnacious. Crude.

The Queretaro State rancher known by his political handle ``The Chief'' is back, trying to re-kindle political momentum in the final weeks before the Aug. 21 election.

Suddenly the rage

The center-right party candidate became an overnight sensation in May, when he clobbered the front-running candidates in Mexico's first-ever televised presidential debate. Mr. Fernandez shot from a distant third to first place in some polls. Mexicans began to seriously consider that the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) might, for the first time in 65 years, lose a presidential election.

But then Fernandez took an unexpected political sabbatical. For 18 days in June and more than two weeks in July, he held no public campaign meetings. PAN officials called it a tactical move to prevent overexposure. Most of Mexico was ensconced in the World Cup soccer tournament playoffs anyway. And Fernandez was preparing for another debate, an economic policy showdown, with the ruling party candidate Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon.

But the debate never happened. Fernandez slipped back to as much as 15 points behind Mr. Zedillo in some polls. Other surveys show him still in a dead heat with the PRI candidate. Political analyst Arturo Sanchez believes PAN made a tactical error.

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