MEXICO CITY – Conservative Felipe Calderon said his leftist opponent would be dangerous for Mexico. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador shot back that Calderon only served the rich. But neither of the two top candidates, tied in the polls, appeared to gain much ground during the final televised debate before the July 2 presidential election.
Calderon wasted little time going on the attack Tuesday night, accusing Lopez Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor, of bankrupting the capital while doing nothing to slow skyrocketing crime rates.
The ex-mayor, a fiery leftist known for off-the-cuff remarks, stayed calm and was slow to respond, but eventually blasted Calderon for influence peddling and pandering to Mexico's rich and powerful.
"What those who support (Calderon) want is a government that's a committee that serves only a few," he said. "What we want is a government that serves everybody, a country for everyone."
Lopez Obrador, who dropped in the polls after refusing to take part in the first debate in April, said he had proof Calderon had awarded a lucrative government contract to his brother-in-law while serving as energy secretary under President Vicente Fox, who is barred from seeking a second, six-year term.
Calderon denied Lopez Obrador's accusation, saying: "You aren't going to win with lies."
Both promised to create jobs and keep millions of Mexicans from heading to the United States in search of work.
"The Mexican people deserve a better destiny," Lopez Obrador said. He later promised to fight U.S. immigration proposals that call for sending troops to the border and extending fences, saying: "We have to convince them that walls, militarization of the border and heavy-handed threats are not the answer."
Calderon called for tougher punishments for criminals — including life prison sentences for kidnappers — and said he would improve infrastructure in cities and towns from where many migrate to the United States.
"The pain of Mexico hurts me deeply," he said. "I don't want my children to inherit a defeated Mexico. I want a victorious Mexico for everyone."
He also attacked Lopez Obrador's proposals, which include pensions for the elderly, as irresponsible.
"The true danger is that he is proposing exorbitant government spending that will cause inflation, devaluations, economic crisis and bankrupt the country," Calderon said.
Lopez Obrador, the candidate of the Democratic Revolution Party, has promised to serve the poor.
"We have to give a hand to those left behind," he said.
Lopez Obrador attacked Fox for feuding with Venezuela, which is led by leftist President Hugo Chavez, and what he described as bowing to pressures from Washington.
"I won't be a puppet of any foreign power," he said.
Roberto Madrazo, trailing in third place, painted his Institutional Revolutionary Party as a moderate option. He urged voters to restore his party to power.
"People are scared of what could happen during the election," he said. "Neither the radical and conflictive left nor the intolerant and repressive right have the answers."
Alma Maldonado, a Lopez Obrador supporter who lives in Arizona but came back to cheer her candidate during the debate, said the former mayor "looked like a head of state."
"He was not the violent man they wanted to show him as," she said outside the office tower where the debate took place.
Tens of thousands of Lopez Obrador supporters gathered in Mexico City's main Zocalo Square to cheer him after the debate.
Lopez Obrador has accused Fox of illegally boosting government spending to keep his party's hold on the presidency, a charge Fox has denied. Such practices are particularly sensitive in Mexico, where the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party used government largesse to hold power for 71 years until Fox's victory in 2000.
Hours before the debate, a Mexico City shooting heightened pre-election tensions. The wife of jailed businessman Carlos Ahumada said gunmen shot at her car just as she was about to release videos expected to be damaging to Lopez Obrador. No one was injured.
In March 2004, Ahumada, a Mexico City construction mogul, rocked the country when he was shown in videos giving a suitcase holding thousands of U.S. dollars to a political ally of Lopez Obrador. The former Mexico City mayor has denied any connection.