MEXICO CITY (AP) — The front-runner in Mexico's presidential race fended off rivals' attempts to paint him as a liar with corrupt backers, emerging from the first of two debates with analysts saying his large lead appeared safe.
Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate seeking to return Mexico's former ruling party to the nation's highest office after 12 years, was accused of lying about his record as governor of the state of Mexico and maintaining ties to unsavory elements of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
He came under particularly relentless attack from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the third-place candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. Lopez Obrador flourished pictures of Pena Nieto with disliked political figures from past PRI administrations, attempting to paint the telegenic 45-year-old candidate as a tool for the return of the autocratic and corrupt party that ruled Mexico for seven decades before it was turned out of power.
"Who is Enrique Pena Nieto, really?" Lopez Obrador asked, as he held up a photo of a grinning Pena Nieto alongside a politician accused of stealing public funds, and another with a widely disliked former president the leftist described as a power broker behind the PRI candidate.
Much of the talk in Mexico on Monday was not the attacks, but the bizarre opening of the event. Pieces of paper randomly assigning the speaking order of the debate were handed to candidates by a former nude model in a skintight white evening gown with a dramatic cutout decolletage. The Federal Election Commission, which organized the debate, said an independent producer had hired the model, and acknowledged that her costume choice was a mistake.
Pena Nieto has a reputation for scrupulously preparing but making errors while improvising. He has been criticized for limiting his public exposure and canceling appearances at academic forums, part of a strategy of avoiding confrontations with his rivals.
In the rare face-to-face confrontation, Lopez Obrador and the second-place candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, appeared to be hoping to force a damaging gaffe from the man who leads the race by as many as 20 points in most polls.
Mexico's first major female presidential candidate showed the cameras a blown-up cover of an Economist magazine profile of Pena Nieto that she said showed he had lied about reducing homicide figures during his term as governor of the state of Mexico.
"There are two ways of lying," she said. "One, not telling the truth and the other, making up statistics."
But Pena Nieto avoided any significant error, striking back at his rivals with responses that grew increasingly aggressive and heated as he described cases of corruption among Lopez Obrador's aides as Mexico City mayor, and accused Vazquez Mota of absenteeism as a federal legislator.
"They seem to have come to an agreement," he said of his two main opponents. "They're coming with knives sharpened."