Mexico's Presidential Contenders Embrace Media Attention

They appear on the covers of society magazines flanked by their partners, soap-opera bombshells. They use street parties, cheerleaders and slick televised productions to tout their state-level accomplishments to a national audience.

Neither the mayor of Mexico's biggest city nor the governor of its most populous state have confirmed their 2012 presidential ambitions, but already they are seen as the ones to beat. And while there are stylistic similarities between Marcelo Ebrard and Enrique Pena Nieto, the very different directions they propose could set Mexico's path for years to come.

While similar in age, the 50-year-old Ebrard and 43-year-old Pena Nieto bear little resemblance to the stiff, bespectacled President Felipe Calderon, 47, a no-nonsense technocrat whose term has been dominated by a brutal drug war that has killed more than 15,000 people since he took office in 2006. So far, no one from Calderon's conservative National Action Party has emerged as a top candidate to succeed him.

"Definitely, this is a new generation," said Lorena Carreno, president of the Mexican Association of Public Relations Agencies. "They are closing the circle to create an integrated marketing strategy, a prefabricated brand."

Pena Nieto, of the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, is known as "Gel Boy" for the seemingly immovable wave in his hair and his sexy good looks. He appears regularly on the national Televisa network with celebrities who fawn over public works in his impoverished state that rings Mexico City.

Ebrard, of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, is a charismatic politician recognized internationally for greening one of the world's smoggiest cities, and has created so many subsidies for single mothers, students, retirees and others that some working-class parents jokingly refer to their kids as "the children of Marcelo."

Both are flamboyant in their pursuit of attention.

Pena Nieto's speeches and ribbon-cutting events are routinely broadcast as infomercials at the end of Televisa's newscasts. He runs advertisements showing actress and singer Lucero Hogaza (whom Televisa touts as "Lucerito, girlfriend of the Americas") nodding and smiling as he rattles off highway projects he has carried out.

Ebrard hosts mass quinceanera parties in downtown Mexico City, and recently MCed a graduation ceremony for 600 city-trained female plumbers, some of whom danced for him and offered to "come over and fix your leaks." He built a Harvard award-winning bus system, and bikes to work to reduce smog — though only once a month, surrounded by bodyguards to protect him from road rage in the gridlocked capital.

"It is clear that there is a change in styles here, toward a more direct communication with the public, and a much more simple style of expression," said Victor Gordoa, an image consultant. "The old way of doing politics is disappearing little by little, as these younger people get into power."

Both Ebrard and Pena Nieto were previously married and have since hooked up with soap opera stars.

Ebrard divorced in 2005 and quickly married the dashing Mariagna Prats, an actress whose sometimes stumbling public speeches have proven an embarrassment to the mayor. People close to the couple see Ebrard as protective of his wife and say his one reservation about running for president is the spotlight it would cast on his family life.

Pena Nieto apparently has no such reservations, though his private life is also a source of controversy.

His wife died in 2007 in what some local media described at the time as a suicide; there were allegations that she swallowed a fistful of pills because of purported philandering. The governor rejected that in an interview with CNN, but was fuzzy about the cause of death.

"It was something unexpected. She had had a disease for two years. Something like — ah, I forgot the name of the disease," he said. Medical reports later said the death was due to heart problems presumably caused by an epilepsy-like condition.

Pena Nieto now dates actress Angelica Rivera, better known as "the Seagull" for a role she made famous, and Mexicans have followed their relationship's every turn. Pena Nieto was recently shown on television introducing Rivera to Pope Benedict XVI and blurting out to the pope: "We're going to get married." Pena Nieto later said he regretted leaking those plans, claiming he didn't know the cameras were rolling.

Ebrard and Pena Nieto have worked together in a respectful but not especially close relationship that is dictated by circumstances: Because Mexico City spills into adjoining Mexico State suburbs, they have to cooperate on issues like policing, transport and utilities — and they do.

But politically, the men are very different.

Ebrard is sympathetic to protests by unions, leftists and squatters' groups, even though their near-daily marches wreak havoc on his city's traffic.

Pena Nieto supports a get-tough approach: One of his first acts as governor in 2006 was to send state police into a town taken over by protesters. Rights groups say the police beat and sexually abused suspects, but the governor backed them up, saying it was "a legitimate use of public force to restore peace and order."

Ebrard is a staunch defender of abortion rights; Pena Nieto's more conservative party has supported abortion bans in many states.

Ebrard champions higher property taxes to pay for generous social programs, such as community kitchens. Pena Nieto hands out monthly food packages to the elderly, but prefers a more supply-side solution: creating infrastructure to attract private firms to create jobs.

Neither man has said much about the top problem on most Mexicans' minds: the drug war and violent crime. That may be why they remain so popular, a welcome diversion from a sober reality. Neither responded to requests to be interviewed by The Associated Press.

Like the characters in any good soap opera, both will have to conquer dark shadows from the past.

Pena Nieto is shadowed by his ties to despised former President Carlos Salinas and the dim record of his party, which ruled Mexico through coercion and corruption for 71 years until it was unseated in 2000.

Ebrard must shake off the threat of party member Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who claims Calderon cheated him out of the presidency in 2006 and has not ruled out another bid in 2012.

And some say that in the end, any strategy of style over substance will founder before the election.

"This is a young generation, but how smart they are, I don't know," said Carlos Alazraki, a prominent Mexican marketing and political consultant. "This is a stupid move by these young politicians, because they think the public is stupid. The public isn't dumb."