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In Mexico, a Candidate Stands Out Despite Attacks

MEXICO CITY -- His likeness appears on a prominently displayed billboard here promoting infidelity, a reference to his affairs during his first marriage. Headlines nearly every day report on corruption allegations around former ranking officials of his party. His opponents' television commercials warn that he will make deals with criminals to quell the bloodshed from Mexico's drug war. University students have taken to the streets to march against him.

Such publicity may be enough to send any candidate nose-diving in the polls. Not here.

Despite the bombardment, Enrique Pena Nieto, the target of the attacks, remains the odds-on favorite to win Mexico's presidential election on July 1, with a comfortable margin in most polls and an air of invincibility.

With a few weeks left in the race, Mr. Pena Nieto's lead has narrowed a bit, but the consensus among analysts and pollsters here is that it would be an upset for the ages if he did not win.

That air of inevitably seemed on display Sunday night, in the second, and final, televised debate among the four candidates. The three candidates trailing him spent most of the time squabbling among themselves, giving Mr. Pena Nieto, of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or the PRI, ample time to look directly into the camera and, in the tone and cadence of a sitting president, promise viewers a better future.

Mr. Pena Nieto ''wins again because he didn't lose or ruffle feathers,'' Jorge Castaneda, a former foreign minister under the incumbent National Action Party, said on Twitter.

Such comments coincide with the view of pollsters that Mexicans, despite a bloody drug war, wobbly economy and persistent inequality, are choosing their next president less on ideas than a gut sense of who can ease their anxieties.

It is no accident that some of Mr. Pena Nieto's recent television commercials show him soaking in boisterous crowds like a rock star. The message: he is a winner, and Mexico can be, too.

His aura of an inevitable victory has made it difficult for the National Action Party and for Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, who narrowly lost the race in 2006, and at first refused to accept the results. Mr. Lopez Obrador has at times appeared unfocused and even loopy -- at the first debate he held up a picture upside down trying to make a point against Mr. Pena Nieto.

He has recently ascended to second place in most polls, but so far has not found the knockout message to catapult him ahead.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, the first female presidential candidate from a major political party, has struggled to decide whether she would campaign on continuity or change, finally settling on ''Josefina Diferente,'' a tough sell when her National Action Party has been in power for nearly 12 years.

"The real question is, why are his opponents so bad?" Carlos Elizondo, a political science professor at CIDE, a research institution here, said in assessing Mr. Pena Nieto's armor.

Others, however, see the beginnings of Mexico's alternating parties in power from election to election.

"Mexico is becoming more of a democratic society," said Jeffrey Davidow, a former American ambassador to Mexico and now a senior adviser with the Cohen Group, a consulting organization in Washington. "After 12 years with a party in power it's only natural another party comes in."

The defeat of the Institutional Revolutionary Party was seen as a watershed in Mexican democracy. It was the first time an opposition party won the presidency since the PRI took over in 1929.

Now, while there is much discussion of the "return" of the PRI, in truth it never really left, Mr. Davidow said, noting that it simply regrouped at the local level, steadily winning state governor races. It now controls 20 of Mexico's 31 states.

It has put forward young, fresh-faced politicians like Mr. Pena Nieto, 45, who dismisses the darker chapters of the party history as the work of ''dinosaurs'' irrelevant to modern times.

At Sunday's debate, Ms. Vazquez Mota warned of ''a return to authoritarianism'' if Mr. Pena Nieto were elected, but he has pushed the sunnier aspects of the party, the political stability, economic expansion and large public works Mexico enjoyed under its tenure. As governor of Mexico State until last year, Mr. Pena Nieto was known best for building hospitals and roads and issuing 600 "commitments" he said he had fulfilled, no matter what his opponents say.

It does not hurt that he is telegenic and delivers speeches well, particularly with a script, and has a touch of aspirational glamour with his wife, a soap opera star on Mexico's biggest network. A recent line of attack has suggested that he has paid officials at the network, Televisa, for favorable coverage, an accusation Mr. Pena Nieto has denied.

Now, the question is whether there is enough time to change the course of the race.

"Many people would have expected him to collapse in either of the two debates or 'Tercer Grado,'" a political news show known for rigorous interviews, said Gabriel Guerra, a political analyst and consultant, about Mr. Pena Nieto. "He did reasonably well, or well enough not to add to his own misfortunes."

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