QUERETARO, Mexico — The front-runner in Mexico's presidential race has attracted throngs of supporters among elite and ordinary citizens alike with his calls to boost his country's trade relationships with Canada and the U.S. — a refocusing effort his staffers call "NAFTA 2.0" — and to tamp down the drug violence that has muddied Mexico's reputation.
For Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party — and apparently the majority of the Mexican electorate — the economic ties that bind the U.S. and Mexico "need to grow."
"If we take into consideration what's happening in the world and the way that competition among countries today is being built by blocs, I believe we have a great opportunity to make a very strong bloc in North America," he said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times.
"I will work on building infrastructure that can make the whole region of North America more competitive."
His message may sound unusual, if not naive, in a country where the news is dominated by reports about drug gangs, corrupt cops and the deaths of nearly 50,000 people in drug-related violence during recent years.
Headline stories about U.S.-Mexico relations often refer to an aid program known as the Merida Initiative, which has received $1.6 billion in drug war support from Washington since 2008.
Mr. Pena Nieto calls for establishing an elite police force to fight organized crime and an "independent czar" who would focus on the victims of public corruption.
But he is bent on shifting the narrative away from the illicit drug trade and toward a collective realization of the potential for growth in the legal economic flow between Mexico and the U.S. — a message that resonates among rank-and-file voters seeking jobs and business owners seeking new markets.
A centrist politician with boyish good looks and charm, Mr. Pena Nieto has built a big lead in the polls ahead of the July 1 election. If he wins, which many here say is inevitable, his plan is to channel that charm toward the United States.
"We have an opportunity to go further in our relationship with the United States and Canada, but especially with the United States," he said.
With Canada as the No. 1 U.S. trading partner, Mexico rivals China for the No. 2 spot — ahead of Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom and Brazil.
Mexico is the third-largest source of U.S. imports and the second-largest destination for U.S. exports, translating into an estimated 6 million U.S. jobs dependent on trade with the southern neighbor.
The bulk of Mexico's trade involves manufacturing by U.S. outfits tapping lower-cost labor, but Mr. Pena Nieto envisions expanded opportunities for foreign investment in other sectors — specifically energy.
A good place to start, he said, would be to reform Mexico's declining state oil monopoly, PEMEX, to"allow the private sector to participate in exploration, production and refining."
Perhaps even more appealing to investors is shale gas, an increasingly vital source of energy in the United States. Tons of it are believed to be trapped in sedimentary rock under Mexico.
"There's no doubt that what we are extracting in Mexico now is far below the great opportunity that we have with regards to shale gas," Mr. Pena Nieto said. "The only chance of really utilizing the potential for PEMEX in this area is through private-sector participation."
The lengths to which Mr. Pena Nieto may be willing to go to generate more U.S. investment in Mexico remain to be seen. But his remarks on certain hot-button issues, specifically immigration, suggest an eagerness not shown in years from this side of the border to seduce U.S. conservatives.
"What we demand from the United States should be congruent with what we are doing toward people from Central America or any other part of the world who come into Mexico, whether they're passing through on their way to the United States or staying here," Mr. Pena Nieto said. "There's a phrase in Mexico that says, 'Don't do to others what you don't want done to yourself.' "
The old and new PRI
It's a catchy and pragmatic kind of speak that has come to define the Pena Nieto candidacy in this nation of nearly 115 million people.
The 45-year-old former state governor represents the jewel at the center of a 12-year regrouping by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), whose old system of top-down politics and patronage controlled the Mexican presidency through most of the 20th century.
Long accused by critics of crony capitalism and corruption, the PRI was ousted from power in 2000 by Vicente Fox and the socially conservative National Action Party (PAN).
Under Mexico's constitution, presidents serve for single six-year terms.
When PAN candidate Felipe Calderon narrowly claimed victory over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the Democratic Revolution Party in 2006, the PRI finished a distant third.
Long accused of having cut deals with organized criminals during its reign, the party seemed unlikely to re-emerge as the dominant player in 2012.
But Mr. Pena Nieto is a fresh face, and his savvy team of advisers took an early risk in the campaign by betting that a focus on economic growth might carry more weight with drug-war-weary voters than anything else.
"It's about jobs," said Emilio Lozoya, Mr. Pena Nieto's Harvard-educated foreign affairs adviser. "You create economic growth, and you have more and better jobs. That's what Mexico needs right now. That's the best way to bring down crime."
A staggering lead in the polls during recent weeks over PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota and Mr. Lopez Obrador, who is running again, suggests Mexican voters agree.
"The economy is more important than security, and the PRI will bring back economic stability," said Ricardo Carrillo Bravo, who has operated a shoeshine stall in Mexico City for 22 years.
"What they've got with Pena Nieto is a hot potato," he said. "He's a young, intelligent and capable guy. But most important, he's got good advisers."
More telling may be the potency with which the economic growth message is resonating through the upper echelons of Mexican society.
"A PRI victory will free up confidence among the nation's wealthy elite to play their money on the market," said Jose Andres de Oteyza, a longtime PRI member who heads OHL Mexico, one of the nation's top infrastructure development firms.
"I am positive of it," Mr. Oteyza said as he sipped espresso before the view from his 25th-floor office in one of Mexico City's modern skyscrapers.
Mexico's wealthy are nothing to shrug off, and include megarich figures such as telecommunication magnate Carlos Slim Helu, whose $70 billion-plus net worth has him listed as the world's richest man.
"Who's going to move the people with the money? Not Mrs. Vazquez Mota, not Mr. Lopez Obrador," said Mr. Oteyza. "Pena Nieto is."
The heartthrob candidate
That Mr. Pena Nieto is a welcome choice of Mexico's elite could stem from his family's connection to high-level PRI operators reaching back to the 1930s. While his father was only a federal bureaucrat, two of his uncles were state governors.
But his popularity seems to hinge on something else entirely: In a nation where good looks matter in every field, the man's perfectly cropped hair and chiseled jawline afford him the status of a heartthrob.
It doesn't hurt that he also recently married TV soap opera actress Angelica Rivera.
Mr. Pena Nieto gets mobbed at every turn by adoring women, along with a smattering of wonder-struck young men.
He appears to revel in it.
After meeting with The Times, he spent more than an hour inching his way through a sea of fans sandwiched between the colonial Spanish buildings of downtown Queretaro.
Such adulation has spawned critics who assert that Mr. Pena Nieto is a "pretty boy" or an overly manufactured candidate whose style far outweighs substance.
"They've created this doll," said Antonio Lopez, a 53-year-old teachers union representative in Mexico City. "Pena Nieto is a puppet and Carlos Salinas is pulling the strings."
It's a feeling echoed by many left-leaning observers, who remember the Salinas presidency in Mexico from 1988 to 1994 as an era defined as much by grandiose showmanship as by anti-democratic and corrupt corporatism.
"I just laugh at that," Mr. Pena Nieto said. "My opponents have had a lot of time to attack me because my nomination to be the PRI candidate is not new."
The real explanation for his popularity, he said, comes from the work he did from 2005 to 2011 as governor of the state of Mexico, the nation's most populous state.
"The best way to prestige as a party is to deliver results in government," he said. "That's what happened in the state of Mexico, and the proof is that when elections came for my successor, my party won with 65 percent of the vote."
He takes a similarly irreverent posture toward assertions of PRI deals with drug cartels.
Some, including Mr. Calderon, have suggested that upon entry back into the Mexican presidency, the PRI will embrace such tactics as a means to reduce the drug violence that has plagued the nation in recent years.
"That idea is more an attack tactic by my opponents than a real truth," Mr. Pena Nieto said. "Whoever is in government has an obligation to fight organized crime. There's no doubt I am committed to that fight."
He added, however, that there should be a "discussion" on how to refine the Calderon administration's all-out war on cartels to "to achieve better results."
In addition to calling for a new, elite police force to fight organized crime, Mr. Pena Nieto told The Times, he would create "an independent czar position that can attend directly to the demands of citizens who are victims of corruption in any level of government — federal, state or municipal."
Yet when it comes to U.S. relations, he is quick to shift back to the economic theme.
"That doesn't mean we want to shift away from the focus on creating safe conditions," he said. "But, let's work on other things."
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