- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Mexico’s presidential candidates have moved to cyberspace, where their campaigns are bombarding voters with online games, cartoons and attack e-mails during the run-up to the July 2 vote.

With more than 20 million Mexicans now using the Web, this is the first election in which the Internet could make a real difference in Mexico. Most Internet users are young, and so is the electorate: More than 40 percent of the 71 million registered voters are under age 30.

Both top contenders have flashy online appeals. Felipe Calderon, the conservative candidate, is a superhero fighting dinosaurs and sharp-toothed fish in an Internet video game satirizing his rivals.

“This is the first Mexican election in which the Internet is having a real impact,” said his spokesman, Arturo Sarukhan. “Our war room believes it is a crucial vote-winning tool.”

The leftist camp of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hit back with its own mass e-mail campaign, which it insists is homegrown. One message, titled “Lies,” includes a slide show portraying his opponents as menacing vampires and Nazi propagandists.

“They show the creativity of a social movement,” said his spokeswoman, Claudia Sheinbaum. “People are outraged at seeing the candidate attacked so viciously and want to do something.”

Mr. Calderon’s advisers reportedly met once with U.S. consultant Dick Morris but did not hire him. The campaign will not comment.

Mr. Sarukhan also sought advice from activists with www.moveon.org, who tried to defeat President Bush in 2004. Mr. Calderon’s campaign then built an interactive site that includes dozens of video and audio links and three video games.

“You have to adapt these ideas to the local environment or in most cases they won’t work,” Mr. Sarukhan said.

Candidates were using e-mails to get their message out before National Action’s Vicente Fox won power in the presidential election six years ago. But there were just over 3 million Mexican Internet users then. Now, there are more than 20 million, according to the Mexican Internet Association.

To reach an even wider cyberspace audience, Mr. Sarukhan said the Calderon campaign will send out millions of cell-phone text messages in the last days before the election. There are more than 40 million cell phones in Mexico, the association said.

Many of the e-mail messages forwarded again and again by Calderon supporters call Mr. Lopez Obrador a corrupt demagogue and a danger to Mexico. Some also reveal Mexico’s stark class divisions.

“The uncultured Lopez Obrador will break the law and protect criminals,” said one e-mail that set off a long thread of responses. “If you know a taxi driver or cleaning lady, or anyone else without education, let them know what waits for them.”

Other e-mails assert that Mr. Lopez Obrador, nicknamed “El Peje” after the sharp-toothed fish of his native Tabasco state, failed his university exams, and the messages direct readers to what purports to be an academic study finding him mentally unfit for office.

The negative e-mails support Mr. Calderon’s radio and TV campaigns, which include spots that flash the words “danger” and “lies” over images of the former Mexico City mayor.

Lopez Obrador campaign coordinator Ricardo Monreal filed a complaint with the federal Attorney General’s Office last month charging that President Fox’s administration used government workers to send out 7 million e-mails backing Mr. Calderon.

Mr. Sarukhan, the Calderon spokesman, compared the legal challenge to “throwing smoke bombs.”

One of the first political movements in Mexico to use the Internet effectively was the leftist Zapatista rebellion in the 1990s, which won international sympathy through rhetorical attacks on the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) that ruled for seven decades.

PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo now trails in third place, and e-mails favoring this “dinosaur” are notably sparse. That is because most PRI voters are too old or too poor to use the Internet, said pollster Jorge Buendia of Ipsos Buendia.

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