- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 23, 2006

A series of American-style media attack ads have knocked leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador off his stride, analysts say, and helped conservative Felipe Calderon to move ahead in Mexico’s presidential race.

Some claim to see the hidden hand of U.S. political consultant Dick Morris, who claimed credit for helping President Vicente Fox to win in 2000 and visited Mexico earlier this year.

Mr. Lopez Obador, a leftist sometimes compared to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, had led the race for the July 2 election since the fall, sometimes by double-digit margins. But Mr. Calderon, candidate of President Vicente Fox’s governing National Action Party (PAN), has surged ahead in recent polls with leads of between two and seven points.

Close observers of the race give much of the credit for the reversal to a series of television and radio ads by the Calderon campaign that have saturated Mexican airwaves.

One particularly effective ad alternates images of Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez criticizing the popular Mexican president and shots of Mr. Lopez Obrador calling Mr. Fox a “chachalaca” — a screeching, turkeylike bird — and telling him to shut up.

The ad “showed [Mr. Lopez Obrador’s] true personality, that he is very aggressive, authoritarian and not very respectful,” said Luis Rubio, who leads the Centro de Investigacion para el Desarrollo, a Mexican think tank.

George Grayson, a Mexican scholar and government professor at the College of William & Mary, agreed, saying that Mr. Fox “may not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but the people like him.” Mr. Fox, whose victory in 2000 broke a 71-year stranglehold on power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), currently enjoys a 63 percent job-approval rating.

Mr. Calderon’s ads also introduced an element of fear into the campaign by associating Mr. Lopez Obrador with Mr. Chavez, who is widely regarded as a loose cannon, said Daniel Lund, who runs MUND Americas, a Mexico City public opinion research firm.

“It’s that free-floating anxiety about hurting a fragile economy and a fragile polity,” he said.

Mr. Grayson said the ads “really knocked [Mr. Lopez Obrador] off his game, and as a result he has been off-message.”

“He’s been floundering,” Mr. Grayson said.

“The ads had an immediate effect in the polls, and … that’s when he started once again blaming everyone for conspiracies — it was the pollsters, it was the mass media, it was Fox. That’s been his line for some years to talk about conspiracies against him,” said Mr. Grayson, who has written a book about Mr. Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor.

A survey early this month in the newspaper Reforma showed Mr. Calderon leading Mr. Lopez Obrador by 40 percent to 33 percent. A May 11 poll by Excelsior newspaper showed Mr. Calderon with 36 percent to Mr. Lopez Obrador’s 34 percent.

PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo has never been a serious factor in the race, but will deny the winner a clear mandate, making bad feelings from the race a potential obstacle to future legislative action.

Speculation that Mr. Morris may have at least inspired the ads stems from visits he made to Mexico City in the fall and earlier this year, when he met informally with officials of the Calderon campaign.

Mr. Morris, who helped design the “triangulation” strategy that rescued Bill Clinton’s presidency after congressional losses in 1994, has also claimed to have played a role in Mr. Fox’s 2000 victory, including during a public appearance at the downtown Avenida Reforma hotel in October.

The Calderon campaign acknowledged informal contacts with Mr. Morris, but says it decided not to hire him, taking on a Spanish consultant instead.

Campaign spokesman Gladis Boladeras said Mr. Morris had met twice with campaign representatives, but insisted he and his associates were playing no role in the campaign. “They are not working for us, either formally or informally, and they are not advising us,” she said.

Mr. Morris has declined comment and did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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