MEXICO CITY -- The four candidates for president of Mexico met in a two-hour debate on Sunday night that saw several colorful surprises but few signs that one candidate pulled away with a sure win.
Although the format was tightly controlled, with pre-approved questions written on paper and chosen from a row of boxes, a string of attacks and counterattacks on the part of the candidates offered a much livelier evening than initially expected.
Enrique Peña Nieto of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, held up a blown-up photograph of a newspaper article referring to a 2004 corruption case tied to leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
Lopez Obrador, in turn, showed a photograph of Peña Nieto sitting arm in arm with former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of the PRI, a move meant to remind voters of the corruption and repression that occurred in the Salinas administration.
"Pure lies, pure insecurity, and that's how they want to impose [the candidacy of] Peña Nieto," Lopez Obrador said, referring to his long-held belief that the dominant television network Televisa is unofficially supporting the PRI campaign.
(The populist candidate for the Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, however, held his photograph upside down for several seconds.)
The lone woman in the race, conservative Josefina Vazquez Mota of the National Action Party, or PAN, concentrated her attacks on Peña Nieto, who entered the debate as the front-runner in all polls.
"I am different because I have a trajectory of honesty and I come from two governments that have not mortgaged the lives of your children," Vazquez Mota said, referring to her party's two consecutive terms in power.
The fourth-place wild card, teacher Gabriel Quadri, tried his best to refer to himself as a "citizen" candidate, unlike his three leading rivals, while lobbing attacks across the board.
Despite the surprises, the first debate in the 2012 election was strictly moderated.
There was no live audience in the same room with the candidates, and no pre- or post-debate conference for the reporters and photographers who gathered in a press room far from the candidates' set at Mexico City's World Trade Center. The candidates stood at podiums facing cameras, not one another.
Before the debate, on the leafy streets outside the World Trade Center, some of the candidates' supporters gathered to rally and cheer on their favorite.
"We are sure that Enrique Peña Nieto is going to win the debate and the presidency," said Ernesto Alcantara, 28, an engineer. "We are here to tell him that he is our candidate, that we trust in him, and that he has our support."
Benita Soto, a 24-year-old student, said she was supporting Lopez Obrador because she said he offers an alternative.
"Enough of the bad governments of the PAN and the PRI," Soto said. "Lopez Obrador is the good guy."
Mexicans vote on July 1 in what will be the second presidential race since the PRI was voted out of power in 2000 with the election of President Vicente Fox of the PAN. In 2006, Lopez Obrador came within less than a percentage point of winning the presidency, which ultimately went to President Felipe Calderon -- results Lopez Obrador still claims were fraudulent.
Peña Nieto, known for his telegenic qualities but facing consistent criticism about his intellectual mettle, is attempting to ward off any potential shift in the race by Vazquez Mota or Lopez Obrador.
Analysts believe many Mexicans are willing to vote the PRI back into power after two terms of conservative, neoliberal-leaning PAN presidencies and the horrific violence brought by the drug war.
"I propose changing fear for hope, I propose changing Mexico," Peña Nieto said.
The next debate is scheduled for June 10.
-- Daniel Hernandez and Cecilia Sanchez
Photo: People watch the 2012 presidential campaign's first televised debate at Mexico City's Zocalo, or main square, on Sunday. Credit: Eduardo Verdugo / Associated Press