MEXICO CITY – Leftist presidential hopeful Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador doesn't speak English, rarely travels outside Mexico and says the best foreign policy is to stay at home and avoid meddling in other nations' affairs.
His conservative rival, Harvard-educated Felipe Calderon, says he'll follow the globe-trotting path of President Vicente Fox, who catapulted Mexico onto the world scene six years ago, eager to show off the country's invigorated democracy after his victory ended 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
While both front-runners in the July 2 election agree on building close U.S. ties and pushing for immigration reform, their visions for Mexico's role in the world are vastly different.
Calderon wants to expand Mexico's already active international role, taking controversial stands at times and openly supporting Israel. While advocating strong ties with many countries, Lopez Obrador is pushing for a return to the days when Mexico stayed out of world politics.
Fox raised Mexico's international profile, promoting respect for human rights worldwide, lobbying for U.N. reforms that would give more power to developing nations and supporting an international tribunal that could put U.S. soldiers on trial for war crimes — costing Mexico $1 million in U.S. funding to fight drug gangs.
While popular internationally, the president's foreign policy received mixed reviews at home. The country paid a price for its assertiveness, including angering the U.S. by refusing to support the Iraq war when it held a rotating seat on the U.N. Security Council in 2003.
"When Mexico asked to be on the U.N. Security Council, a lot of Mexicans wondered why it was putting itself in a position where it would have to make votes on sensitive issues that really didn't affect them very much but that could make life difficult for them," said Sidney Weintraub, of the Washington-based Center for International and Strategic Studies.
Lopez Obrador — on the defensive after Calderon attack ads compared him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez — says it's time Mexico returned to its long-standing policy of nonintervention.
"We're going to be careful to not meddle in the internal life of other countries and other governments, because we are not going to permit them to meddle in the internal affairs of our country," Lopez Obrador has said, adding that the best foreign policy is a good domestic policy that builds a stable nation.
Analysts say Lopez Obrador is directing his message at President Bush.
"He's essentially asking the United States not to meddle in Mexico's internal affairs," said Chuck Collins, a senior scholar at the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies.
There have been rumors that Lopez Obrador has never left Mexico and doesn't even have a passport, both of which his campaign manager Jesus Ortega denies. Ortega says Lopez Obrador has traveled to several countries, including the United States and Cuba, but isn't a "political tourist," referring to Fox's many foreign trips as president.
Lopez Obrador says he'll be respectful toward Washington but won't be its puppet like Fox, who was lambasted for not strongly protesting the deployment of U.S. National Guard troops to the border and plans to extend walls to stop migration.
The leftist candidate has vowed to re-negotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement to reverse a clause allowing for the free import of U.S. corn and beans in 2008 — something that could devastate Mexican farmers.
"Mexico first, later the world!" he recently yelled to a crowd of 10,000 farmers outside Mexico City.
Calderon says that vision will leave Mexico behind in today's global society. He promotes opening more embassies, including in Nigeria and Pakistan, and bolstering Mexico's role as a promoter of human rights and free trade.
"It's not enough to stick your head in the sand and close yourself off," Calderon said during a recent rally. "Mexico has to compete and win, because it has everything to win."
Calderon, a former energy secretary, wants to boost ties with the U.S. and Canada. He has proposed an annual North American Summit of the three countries and has said Mexico's NAFTA partners should invest in Mexico to stem migration.
He also wants more trade agreements with Asia and has said Mexico should focus on attracting tourists from China and Japan. And while Mexico has been neutral on the Middle East conflict, Calderon told a Jewish community gathering this month that it's time for Mexico to support Israel.
"Israel's effort at reaching a lasting peace is important, and that effort should be backed by the international community," he said.
Daniel Hernandez, an employee at American Express in Mexico City, worries that Mexico isn't strong enough to get involved in international disputes.
"For now, we should dedicate ourselves to internal matters to make us an economic power," he said. "Then we can meddle in the affairs of other countries."