SILAO, Mexico — Pope Benedict XVI achieved a small, political miracle in this municipality of farms and factories, 220 miles northwest of Mexico City.
Last Sunday, his Mass brought together the country's four presidential candidates, just five days prior to the start of campaigning for the July 1 election.
This was unthinkable 25 years ago, a time when politicos and prelates didn't publicly appear together, and free and fair elections were uncommon. In those days the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which governed for 71 uninterrupted years, called the shots.
It would even be hard to imagine such a scene just six years ago, when the furious presidential runner-up decried the election had been rigged.
But here in Silao sat that 2006 runner-up, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, with rivals he once called “mafia,” “dummy” and “spurious.”
Now, as Mexico's presidential campaigns get under way the 2012 election promises to bring even more changes, especially with the opposition PRI entering the race as the prohibitive favorite.
The PRI boasts being a party that knows how to govern during difficult times. It says it promotes economic growth and keeps crime under control — even though corruption, pesos crises and human rights abuses were common during its administrations.
Polls give PRI candidate Enrique Peña Nieto, running in a coalition with the Green Party (PVEM), a double-digit lead over both Josefina Vazquez Mota, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), and Lopez Obrador, who represents a trio of left-wing parties.
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Peña Nieto is the former governor of Mexico state, which surrounds Mexico City like a horseshoe and, during his 2005-2011 administration, was blanketed with signage boasting of the public works projects he used to build his image. "Government that delivers," the signs read.
Political analysts expect the race to tighten as the telegenic Peña Nieto, 45, undergoes more intense scrutiny over some of his personal peccadilloes, such as cheating on his first wife and fathering two children out of wedlock, and his inexplicable gaffes.
While presenting a book he wrote at the prestigious Guadalajara book fair, Peña Nieto was unable to mention three books that had marked his life. That drew sarcastic tweets suggesting he preferred telenovelas to novels — a dig at his soap opera star wife, Angelica Rivera.
His teenage daughter made matters worse by branding her father's critics "prole," or proletariat, slang for the masses in Mexico.
But the scrutiny is unlikely to have much of an effect, says independent analyst Fernando Dworak, mainly because electoral law now bans negative advertising on TV and radio. In past elections negative ads reminded voters of PRI excesses and kneecapped the 2006 campaign of Lopez Obrador.
Peña Nieto has spoken of some serious matters and positioned himself as a reformer capable of reviving economic growth and promoting private participation in Pemex, the state oil company. Yet his party has torpedoed such reforms repeatedly in congress for the past 12 years.
Policy proposals may not matter anyway. Political science professor Aldo Muñoz of the Autonomous University of Mexico state in Toluca — capital of Peña Nieto's home state — says the Mexican electorate has embraced the concept of alternating government between parties, especially on the state and municipal level.
That concept would spell disaster for the conservative PAN. The party has governed since 2000 and achieved solid public finances and macroeconomic stability, but failed to foment the 7 percent economic growth promised by former President Vicente Fox. It has attempted security and judicial overhauls, but failed to abate corruption.
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Drug and organized crime violence has claimed 47,000 deaths since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006. That figure hurts the ruling party, Muñoz says, more "than the usual vices of poverty and corruption."
The PAN has nominated Vazquez Mota, a former social development and education secretary and the country's first female candidate for a major party. She enters the race as an unlikely outsider and calls herself "the disobedient daughter," having butted heads with the party establishment and Calderon loyalists.
Federico Estevez, political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, describes Vazquez Mota as a competent administrator, but questions if she can win female voters given Peña Nieto's popularity among the group.
"How does she compete [for female voters] with a ‘metrosexual’ from Toluca?" he asks.
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Polls show Lopez Obrador running third with roughly 20 percent of the vote. The former Mexico City mayor has toured Mexico tirelessly for the past five years, building a social and political movement, masquerading as the "legitimate president" and refusing to recognize the Calderon administration's legitimacy.
He recently told the Spanish newspaper El Pais that he forgives Calderon and has promoted peace and reconciliation, along with a "loving republic."
An Archdiocese of Mexico City spokesman recently disparaged the candidate's movement — known as MORENA, which invokes the national patroness, Our Lady of Guadalupe — and quasi-religious discourse as "marketing."
Rounding out the field is a relative unknown, Gabriel Quadri, whose New Alliance party draws its name and logo from a defunct Canadian political operation and does the bidding for the national teachers' union and its boss Elba Esther Gordillo.
The environmentalist and scientist polls barely 1 percent, putting his party in jeopardy of not surpassing the 2 percent minimum vote threshold for maintaining its registration.
Miracles are most likely not in the offing for Quadri and his New Alliance.
Mexico's version of the Secret Service deemed Quadri's campaign so insignificant that it gave him a bulletproof Volkswagan Jetta — the others received bulletproof SUVs, he complained.
In perhaps a last-ditch effort to grab the public eye, Quadri set off his campaign on Friday by reef diving near Veracruz.