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Mexican Candidates Begin 5-Month Campaign

January 19, 2006

METLATONOC, Mexico (AP) _ Mexico’s top three presidential candidates kicked off the nation’s five-month presidential campaign Thursday, with leftist front-runner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador traveling by dirt path to one of the country’s poorest towns and promising to govern for the forgotten.

With poverty shaping up as a key issue in the July 2 election, Lopez Obrador was greeted enthusiastically by Metlatonoc residents who fought to shake his hand and hang wreaths of flowers around his neck.

``I’m going to listen to everyone,″ Lopez Obrador said on the first legal day of campaigning. ``I’m going to respect everyone. But the poor and forgotten of Mexico will get preferential treatment.″

His two main rivals, conservative Felipe Calderon and Roberto Madrazo, also focused on fighting poverty as they battle to replace President Vicente Fox, who is prohibited by law from seeking re-election.

Perched on a pine-covered mountain, Metlatonoc epitomizes why impoverished Mexicans head to the United States for work.

Blocks from where Lopez Obrador spoke, a Mixtec Indian woman wailed over the coffin of her husband, whose body was returned home Wednesday from Alabama, where he worked at a chicken processing plant. Santiago Mendoza Galvez, 34, was hit by a car in Dothan, Ala., and left eight children.

``I don’t want my children to go to the other side″ of the border, said his wife, Nieves Olea Cano. ``That’s why my husband went there, so they could study.″

According to a 2004 U.N. report on Human Development, life in Metlatonoc, a town of 30,000, is comparable to towns in the poorest African countries like Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sierra Leone.

``The truth is, we’ve been forgotten,″ said Raimundo Ramirez Moreno, Metlatonoc town councilman, adding that Lopez Obrador ``is our only hope. The poor, the people have confidence in him.″

Migration is becoming a leading campaign issue along with the widely resented U.S. proposal to extend a wall along the border.

But Foreign Relations Minister Luis Derbez urged candidates Thursday to use ``care″ when mentioning migration in their campaigns so as not to taint the government’s negotiations with the United States.

A Reforma newspaper poll, published Thursday, showed Lopez Obrador with a slight lead at 34 percent of voters’ support, compared with 26 percent for Calderon and 22 percent for Madrazo. Fifteen percent said they were undecided, and 3 percent said they would vote for two minor candidates.

The poll, which questioned 1,515 people from Jan. 14-15, had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Madrazo, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, ruled Mexico for 71 years until Fox’s historic victory in 2000, started his campaign in a slum on the outskirts of Mexico City known for sending workers to the United States.

``We want to identify the campaign with people who have the most needs,″ he said.

Calderon launched his campaign for Fox’s conservative National Action Party, or PAN, by eating breakfast with about 400 supporters on a muddy soccer field in the rough Mexico City neighborhood of Ixtapalapa.

The candidate said he will bring jobs and raise wages so that thousands of Mexicans won’t need to head to the United States.

Maria Isabela Garcia, 48, a maid, said she came out to see ``if he really supports us or he’s all talk.″

Marisol Landa, 36, said she voted for Fox in 2000, but planned to support Madrazo this year because Mexico had improved little.

``He didn’t keep his promises,″ she said. ``He didn’t have the experience to move this country forward ... under the PRI, the country worked better.″

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Associated Press Writers Will Weissert and Ioan Grillo contributed to this story.

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