MEXICO CITY – As Mexico prepares for the first of three presidential candidate debates, the governing party is struggling to remain relevant in the campaign ahead of the July 1 election.
Advertisements for Institutional Revolutionary Party candidate Jose Antonio Meade have even dropped the party's logo. Instead they use three colored triangles meant to represent the parties in his coalition.
That decision makes sense given the striking unpopularity of the ruling party, known as the PRI. In a face-to-face poll of 1,200 voters published Wednesday by the newspaper Reforma, 59 percent said their most important goal in the election is to get the PRI out of office.
At the same time, 22 percent said they wanted to prevent the race's front-runner, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, from reaching the presidency. The poll had a margin of error of four percentage points.
Meade "is doing the best he can. The thing is he has a mission impossible, because the rejection of the PRI is now brutal, it's enormous," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst at Mexico's Center for Economic Research and Teaching.
"He has some strong points, he's been a good official, he has a more or less friendly demeanor," Crespo added. "But he is carrying the weight of the party."
With a half dozen former PRI governors under indictment for corruption and uncountable scandals over its decades in power, the PRI seemed to realize that one of its own couldn't win. So the party nominated Meade, a former Cabinet official who isn't formally a member of the party. But he has been running a very heavily party-oriented campaign, negating the advantage.
"So you have a candidate who isn't a party member, and who doesn't use the party logo, saying he's not PRI, but he is. That's not fooling anyone," Crespo said.
Ricardo Anaya, who is No. 2 in the polls as the candidate for a left-right coalition, has discounted Meade.
"The PRI is already on its way out," Anaya said in a video campaign ad. "The question is what kind of change do you want."
Anaya, 39, casts himself as the change of the future. He frequently casts himself as sort of a tech guru launching new "smart" products — and says Lopez Obrador represents Mexico's old, statist past.
The problem is that most Mexicans, particularly those under 40, don't remember ever living under the old, state-dominated economy that characterized Mexico prior to 1982.
And Lopez Obrador, paradoxically, has benefited from an old tactic of the PRI: dividing the opposition. There is a strong contingent of voters who don't want to see him win, but they are divided between the four other candidates, who include two running as independents.
Lopez Obrador was supported by 48 percent in the Reforma poll, while Anaya was at 26 percent and Meade at 18 percent.
Analysts say many voters are so angry with the PRI that they may not actually be listening to what Lopez Obrador says and are just supporting him to oust the ruling party. That is a double-edged sword for Lopez Obrador, the experts say.
"Many things could happened between now and July 1," newspaper columnist Raymundo Riva Palacio wrote. "He could go to the extreme and say something so shrill that actually everyone may hear it."