MEXICO CITY -- In 2006, when he came within a hair of winning Mexico's presidency, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was called a "danger to Mexico" by his opponents on the right, a would-be Hugo Chavez who would plunge the country into an economic crisis.
Six years later, Lopez Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, is back and in a second run for the country's top office.
This time around, he has sought to soften his image, and the traditionally conservative business elites now appear open to at least listening to the man bidding to become Mexico's first leftist president in modern times.
On Thursday, Lopez Obrador addressed a group of leading private-sector finance chiefs for the first time in his political career. He was greeted with smirks and chuckles at some points, but drew applause when he said he'd basically "maintain macroeconomic policies" currently in place in Mexico.
"We have no plans to expropriate, we will respect concessions, contracts [to foreign companies]," Lopez Obrador said.
He also told the Institute of Mexican Finance Executives during a freewheeling two-hour breakfast session that he'd aggressively seek to reduce poverty and "combat corruption" and waste through austerity measures.
He said his team believes it can make Mexico's economy grow 6% annually while creating 1.2 million new jobs a year, through a mix of public and private investments, including roads and refineries. His overall model, he said, is rising economic powerhouse Brazil under leftist leader and former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
With austerity cuts, the government could save billions of pesos a year, Lopez Obrador added; he'd start by halving the presidential salary and flying in commercial jets if elected.
"If we don't combat poverty and inequality, we will keep seeing frustration, insecurity, and violence," he said.
Lopez Obrador, 59, has been running third for most of this election season heading to the July 1 vote. Yet in recent days, as conservative opponent Josefina Vazquez Mota has made a series of stumbles, he appears to be moving up in some polls.
Still, even a dramatic surge in support for either candidate might be too little, too late, to top the candidate for the resurgent formerly ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, Enrique Peña Nieto, who maintains a comfortable double-digit lead over both.
It was unclear how strongly Lopez Obrador's message resonated with the business group. One attendee, Beatriz Zarur, said that in 2006 she supported Felipe Calderon, the current president. This year, she said she was still unsure whom to support.
"I think he has some interesting proposals, but at the same time, he's got things that I don't agree with," said Zarur, who works for a law firm in Boston and whose mother is an IMEF member.
"I am not a partisan," Zarur added. "I don't care if she's a woman or he's handsome. I'm interested in proposals and in candidates."
-- Daniel Hernandez
Photo: Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, presidential candidate of the leftist coalition of Mexico, speaks at his campaign launch March 30. Credit: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images