Mexican flag
Mexican flag - 

TEXT OF STORY

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: Mexico is going through its tightest presidential election in decades and voters couldn't be offered a starker choice: Business favorite Felipe Calderon wants to continue the free market policies of outgoing President Vicente Fox. Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador advocates a shift toward greater social spending. Polls show Mexicans evenly divided between these two visions for their country. From Mexico City, our Americas correspondent Dan Grech reports.


DAN GRECH: At age 71, Aurora Reyes works as a janitor. She earns 83 cents an hour. But each month she gets 65 bucks from the Mexico City government. Presidential candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador started these handouts during his five years as mayor of Mexico City.


AURORA REYES [ translator ]:"Lopez Obrador is one of a kind. If here were here right now, I'd give him a kiss on the lips!"

Lopez Obrador was hugely popular as mayor. In addition to stipends to single moms and the elderly, he built raised highways to unclog traffic and revamped the bus system.

A large part of Lopez Obrador's appeal is that he portrays himself as just another struggling Mexican. Professor George Grayson wrote a book critical of Lopez Obrador called "The Mexican Messiah."

GEORGE GRAYSON: "He lives in a small home in a lower middle class part of Mexico City. He drives a beat up Japanese car. He disdains Rolex watches. And he conceives of himself as a messiah, or as a savior of the downtrodden."

As the candidate for the Party of the Democratic Revolution, Lopez Obrador says he will take up the cause of the poor. He wants to renegotiate parts of the North American Free Trade Agreement. And he promises thousands of jobs in public works.

His leading rival, Felipe Calderon of the National Action Party, wasted no time spinning public spending into the dangers of overspending. Eduardo Sojo is Calderon's chief campaign advisor.

EDUARDO SOJO: He's a danger for Mexico. The economic policies of Lopez Obrador will take us back to those periods of economic crisis, inflation, devaluation, high interest rates and the like.

Calderon would continue the policies of the Fox administration, which boasts the longest period of economic stability in Mexico since the 1960s. Still, growth during Fox's six years in office was an anemic 2 percent. The half of Mexico that still lives in poverty is restless.

Rogelio Ramirez de la O is Lopez Obrador's principal economic advisor.

ROGELIO DE LA O:"What we have in Mexico is a great opportunity to decide on changing or not changing. If the second of July vote doesn't go for Lopez Obrador, then my conclusion will be the Mexicans don't want to change."

The race is now in a dead heat as Mexicans weigh whether the change they feel is needed is really worth the risk.

In Mexico City, I'm Dan Grech for Marketplace.