TIJUANA, Mexico — Enrique Peña Nieto is the kind of politician who elicits screams from young women along with the more sober cheering of other supporters. He’s handsome and smooth, his hair slickly combed back in a slight puff that’s exaggerated in political cartoons and masks of his likeness.
The 45-years old politician holds a double-digit lead in most polls over Mexico’s other three presidential candidates. He represents the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. The party governed Mexico for 71 years — from 1929 up until 2000. It has a reputation for corruption and cronyism.
But Peña Nieto has painted himself as a leader of the new PRI — shaped by and dedicated to Mexico’s relatively new democracy.
In the first of two campaign appearances in Tijuana on Sunday, the candidate addressed thousands of supporters, mostly women, in the city’s downtown. Some threw rose petals over him as he walked through the crowd to the podium.
There, he laid out a 10-point plan for his vision of a “new” democratic Mexico.
First, he said, he would make sure Mexicans earn more, and that their income is worth more.
Second, he said he would ensure basic food items are kept at a price that all Mexicans can afford by boosting national production.
He also promised lower energy prices, free school supplies for kids and pensions for the elderly.
The candidate didn’t once mention Mexico’s security problem. Some 50,000 people have been killed in drug violence since December 2006.
Peña Nieto grew up in a small town in the central state of Mexico, which includes Mexico City. He served as governor of the state from 2005 until last year.
As most politicians do, when running for governor Peña Nieto pledged to carry out a series of public works and reforms. During his time in office, he actually checked off each pledge as it was fulfilled.
“So he’s made a name for himself as promising things and delivering those things, and being a pretty effective governor,” said Eric Olson from the Washington-based Mexico Institute, part of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The other, dominant image of Peña Nieto, Olson said, is that of the young, dapper, pretty boy who suffered a family tragedy — his first wife died in 2007 — and has since remarried a popular soap opera star.
Both of these images contribute to the candidate’s celebrity status.
But his opponents hope to paint a different image of Peña Nieto— that of an instrument of the old PRI party machine that wants to get back in power and maintain privileges for the few.
Outside of Peña Nieto’s second campaign stop in Tijuana, a group of around 60, mostly young people, held signs and chanted things like, “Tijuana doesn’t want you,” and “I do know how to read.”
The latter is in reference to an appearance Peña Nieto made last year at the International Book Fair in Guadalajara. There, the then pre-candidate famously spent about five minutes trying to recall three books that had influenced his life.
Then he mixed up the authors of two of the books. (The third was the Bible.)
Nadia Muñoz, a university student in Tijuana who was protesting at one of the Peña Nieto campaign events, said the country’s highly concentrated media is favoring the PRI candidate so that they can continue to enjoy special privileges.
She said she’s voting for leftist candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador. According to the latest poll, López Obrador currently holds second place in the presidential race, although he’s still 12 points below Peña Nieto.
The PRI candidate’s appearances attracted tens of thousands of people on Sunday.
Maria viuda de Castro left the downtown event impressed. She called Peña Nieto “an excellent man,” and said she hoped he’d do something to improve the country’s security problem.
“It doesn’t just depend on him,” she said. “It depends on all Mexicans, along with the president.”
Mexican voters will cast their ballots on July 1.