- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2000

LEON, Mexico A sea of logos, strikingly similar to the Mexican flag, waved wildly as Francisco Labastida bounded onto the platform at another mass rally, demonstrating that the electoral machine of the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party is primed and ready to go.

"I am going to go back to the origins of our party and its commitment to the poor," Mr. Labastida told the cheering crowd in the northern city of Leon considered tough territory for the PRI as it seeks another six-year term after 71 years in power.

On his campaign bus afterward, Mr. Labastida explained why he believes the PRI apparatus will again prove unbeatable, despite the challenge from Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN) that has made this the most competitive election in Mexican history.

"What gives the party its strength is the enormous number of activists, in every town and municipality. When they all start campaigning they are unrivaled," Mr. Labastida boasted in an interview late last week. "No other party has a territorial structure that can compare to ours."

Such bravado from a career politician who suffers from a gray bureaucratic image is hardly surprising. His decision to return to the tried and tested axioms of a PRI campaign has eased some of the jitters that a month ago were shaking his camp as Mr. Fox climbed steadily in polls ahead of the July 2 vote.

A former Coca-Cola executive with a cowboy style and an astute use of the mass media, Mr. Fox had reached out beyond the PAN's traditionally conservative constituency to create a broader movement with one goal in mind booting out the PRI, long vilified for corruption and economic mismanagement but aided by a divided opposition.

The PRI, guided by U.S. advisers such as James Carville, was struggling until last month to convince Mexicans that Mr. Labastida headed a "New PRI" that reflected his slogan, "Change with purpose."

But when Mr. Fox drew level with Mr. Labastida at about 40 percent support at the end of April, the PRI candidate abruptly accepted the failure of his decision to distance himself from key PRI figures who were deemed electorally unpalatable because of their association with dirty tricks in the past.

"I decided to listen to my internal advisers more than the external ones. My own team was more in tune with the particularities of such a complex country as Mexico than the external advisers, who don't know it so well," Mr. Labastida said of his decision to sideline Mr. Carville and scrap the 'softly softly' approach.

"It wasn't that [the old strategy] was bad, more that a part of the party didn't feel that is was participating, and as a consequence was holding back in the political campaign. It felt alienated from the discourse, so now we are incorporating all the party in order to win the election," the candidate said.

"It's back to basics," said political analyst Alejandro Proire of the reincorporation into the campaign of the old guard known popularly as the "dinosaurs" with their decades of experience in organizing mass rallies and door-to-door mobilization.

In this campaign, in which unprecedented electoral monitoring will make any outright fraud on election day difficult, these traditional shows of pre-poll strength have been combined with a media blitz attacking Mr. Fox as a dangerously unstable character.

The PRI's strategy has been aided by some recent outbursts by the challenger that made him appear like a petulant child or a potential autocrat.

The most recent polls indicate that Mr. Fox's support has stagnated or begun to fall off, while Mr. Labastida is shoring up his vote. Support for third-running Mexico City Mayor Cuauhtemoc Cardenas also has been creeping up, apparently at Mr. Fox's expense.

According to aides accompanying Mr. Labastida on his punishing campaign schedule, the PRI candidate is far more comfortable since he gave up the vague rhetoric of modernization and returned to the traditional campaign style with lists of concrete promises such as a 30 percent cut in the price of gasoline on the day he takes office.

This is hardly surprising, as Mr. Labastida has spent 36 of his 57 years in PRI posts, He has served as minister of agriculture and the interior and as governor in the drug-troubled northern state of Sinaloa.

Mr. Labastida insists the change in his campaign style does not mean that the modernization of the PRI has not been halted. "The project to reform the party goes on, and this means making it a democratic party," he said.

He rejected suggestions that he must have made promises to the "dinosaurs" to get their help in the campaign. A Labastida government would root out corruption and launch more efficient strategies in the fight against drug trafficking, he insisted.

But first he must persuade people like Maria Teresa Masias to put the PRI back in government.

"He's my candidate," said the 54-year-old street vendor, who had come from her poor neighborhood in the outskirts of Leon to see Mr. Labastida on the stump.

"I didn't say I was going to vote for him because I thought he was better than the others," she explained before accepting a bus ride home from the party which will also transport her to a polling station on election day.

"It's just that ever since I have been conscious, I have supported the PRI. It's like honoring the flag."

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