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Mexico Presidential Campaigns Reach Apex

Mexico's presidential candidates wrapped up months of mudslinging with final campaign rallies Wednesday, with left-leaning Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and conservative Felipe Calderon locked in a tight race.

Lopez Obrador, a former Mexico City mayor, chose Mexico City's main square for his final appeal to voters, while Calderon of President Vicente Fox's National Action Party went to one of his party's bastions, conservative Jalisco state.

At the center of Sunday's vote are twin realities: Mexico's vast inequalities and the newfound economic stability that has allowed many families to have homes, mortgages and new cars for the first time.

The election will determine whether Mexico joins Latin America's rising tide of charismatic leftist leaders or continues on a path of fiscal conservatism and unbridled free trade.

The sharp contrasts "are the result of an economic model that, even if it isn't worn out yet, has caused social tensions" between the rich and the poor, political analyst Oscar Aguilar said.

Final polls, published last week, showed Calderon running about even with Lopez Obrador, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party. Wednesday was the last legal campaign day before a four-day period in which candidates are prohibited from making statements.

Lopez Obrador, 53, promised "to put the poor first" by establishing universities with open enrollment, creating pensions and cash-support programs for the poor and elderly, and protecting the country's agriculture sector by refusing to follow a clause of the North American Free Trade Agreement with the United States and Canada.

Sunday's elections "will demonstrate that money doesn't always win out over the morality and dignity of the people," he said.

But he also sought to reassure markets by pledging financial restraint and to control inflation.

"The economy will be handled with technical policies, not ideology ... we will not cause any (economic) crisis," he told over 100,000 supporters in square.

For months, Lopez Obrador has sought to distance himself from the "leftist tide" in the region and resisted the Calderon campaign's frequent efforts to compare him to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, an anti-American socialist known for his angry rhetoric.

Calderon, who trusts markets to keep living standards rising, waved a Mexican flag in the rain as he wrapped up his campaign in the western state of Jalisco, where he first announced his candidacy.

"There is no tomorrow gentlemen, tomorrow will be decided on Sunday," said Calderon from Guadalajara, the country's second-largest city. "I invite Mexico to think of the future."

Calderon and business groups that support him accuse Lopez Obrador of offering a return to the overspending and big government that caused frequent economic crises of the past.

"Lopez Obrador is a danger to Mexico" was a favorite Calderon campaign slogan.

Calderon, 43, wants to encourage investment by creating a trade route that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific, making it easier to receive raw materials from Asia and assemble products for the U.S. and European markets.

"I will be an inclusive president," he told a crowd of about 1,000 earlier Wednesday in the small, western city of Zamora in his home state of Michoacan.

Running third in polls is Roberto Madrazo, the candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which governed Mexico from 1929 to 2000, when Fox became the first opposition candidate to break the party's stranglehold on power.

More than 50,000 supporters arrived for his late-night campaign closing along the sweltering waterfront in the port of Veracruz, on the Gulf of Mexico. The event had a carnival-like atmosphere, with five different stages supporting bands playing salsa music and dancers swaying their hips.

Madrazo paints the party as a sensible middle ground between what he calls the radical left and the intolerant right.

"We are going to win because people don't want adventures, either from the left or the right," Madrazo said early Wednesday in the state of Coahuila, which borders Texas. "People want results. And the PRI knows how to deliver."

Fox is not eligible to run as presidents are limited to one five-year term in Mexico.