Correction:

Earlier versions of this article incorrectly described Enrique Peña Nieto’s level of English proficiency. Peña Nieto, Mexico’s leading presidential candidate, speaks English and, therefore, if elected, would not differ in this regard from the previous five presidents of Mexico. This version has been updated.

Mexico's leading presidential candidate is handsome, popular and still a mystery

In his campaign for president, Mexico’s handsome front-runner, Enrique Peña Nieto, looks down from towering billboards with a movie-star smile. “Tu me conoces,” he says. You know me.

But the fact is, many don’t.

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Timeline - Five years after it began, the U.S.-backed drug war rages on in Mexico.
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Timeline - Five years after it began, the U.S.-backed drug war rages on in Mexico.

With the July 1 presidential vote only weeks away, Peña Nieto holds a solid double-digit lead in the polls. But Mexican voters and U.S. observers confess that they do not really know what the candidate stands for. Nor are they sure how he would govern Mexico, a vital trade partner for the United States, Mexico’s ally in the fight against drug cartels.

“Do people really know him?” asked independent pollster Roy Campos. “No, but they want to get to know him.”

Disparaged by his opponents as a pretty puppet and telegenic con man, the 45-year-old Peña Nieto is a masterful retail politician who, through message discipline and sophisticated marketing, has made himself the new face of the Institutional Revolutionary Party. Known as the PRI, the autocratic political machine fell from power in 2000 after running Mexico with a blend of corruption and coercion for 71 years.

Peña Nieto was born into the PRI in this quiet farm town a few hours’ drive northwest of the capital. He learned politics at the family dinner table. Even as a child, his hair was neatly combed, his manners impeccable. He appears to have approached his life as a ceaseless campaign.

“Instead of playing with other boys his age, he always wanted to be with the adults, talking about politics,” said one of his aunts, Berta del Mazo. “They told him even then, ‘You’re going to govern someday.’ ”

A cadre of old-style political bosses known as the Atlacomulco Group schooled young Enrique in the lessons of patronage and power.

Five men from his family had served as governor of the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous, by the time Peña Nieto was ready for his turn at the job in 2005. His time in office set him on the path to this year’s presidential run.

One of his mentors was family member Arturo Montiel, who preceded him as governor and later faced accusations of enriching himself with public money.

“Who is Enrique Peña Nieto, really?” said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left’s presidential candidate, at their first debate, expressing aloud a question that has been on many minds.

“He’s been following a script all along. It’s like a storyboard,” said Jenaro Villamil, a reporter with the muckraking newsweekly Proceso who depicts the candidate as the made-for-TV creation of Televisa, the country’s dominant media conglomerate.

In his books and articles, which are being cited by Peña Nieto’s rivals, Villamil asserts that as governor, Peña Nieto gave millions to Televisa in advertising contracts to guarantee maximum exposure on the network’s programming, allegations the candidate rejects.

On Friday, Peña Nieto faced new accusations that he paid Televisa to have its commentators praise him on the air. The candidate insisted that he merely bought commercial spots before and after the commentaries — just like a tequila company would, he said.

Peña Nieto says that the Mexican people want change and that he is the agent. President Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party is constitutionally barred from running for reelection.

The stiff, stubborn Calderon often cast himself as a military general, battling Mexico’s criminal mafias and the entrenched political class — dominated by Peña Nieto’s PRI — that blocked passage of Calderon’s agenda.

In contrast, the dashing Peña Nieto appears as a warm figure who “is anti-conflict,” said Campos, the pollster. “All presidential campaigns are a process of seduction.”

Uncertainty in Washington

U.S. officials and some members of Congress are unsure how committed Peña Nieto is to pressing the fight against the drug cartels, a challenge that has dominated the relationship between the Calderon and Obama administrations to the exclusion of almost everything else.

Peña Nieto has signaled that he is more interested in fighting the crimes that hurt ordinary Mexicans — kidnapping, extortion, robbery, murder — than in stemming drug trafficking. Many Mexicans would agree. They don’t care how much cocaine is smuggled into the United States, but they care about the headless torsos dumped in their downtowns.

Peña Nieto is so determined to present himself as a man who “keeps his word” that he has been visiting each of Mexico’s 31 states to sign campaign pledges in the presence of a notary public.

As he did during his tenure as governor, he plans to administer by checklist, ticking off each public project — hospitals, highways, schools — as a promise kept.

In that sense, Peña Nieto is casting himself less as a politician and more as a leader. His politics are hard to pin down, because his presidential proposals — most of them vague — are samplings from the left, right and center.

He promises that he will be an effective administrator who can get reforms passed, bridges built and jobs created.

Opponents have tried to undermine his central message with attack ads denouncing him as a “liar,” saying he failed to deliver on his promises as governor but took credit anyway.

The flying mud hasn’t moved Peña Nieto’s positive numbers. Nor have revelations about his personal life. Last year, the observant Catholic confessed that he fathered two children out of wedlock, by two women, during his marriage to his first wife, Monica Pretelini, who died of an epileptic attack Jan. 11, 2007.

The following year, Peña Nieto announced on a TV talk show that he was dating the recently divorced Televisa network soap opera actress Angelica Rivera, who starred in the popular drama “Distilled Love,” about a simple farm girl who faces wickedness in the big city. The two married in 2010.

Peña Nieto’s infidelities do not appear to have hurt him with voters, though his main rival, National Action Party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, used Mexico’s Mother’s Day on Thursday to criticize him as a deadbeat dad who failed to take responsibility for his actions.

Peña Nieto attended Panamerican University in Mexico City, founded by the conservative Opus Dei Catholic movement, and he received a master’s degree in administration from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies.

“People want change, and he has positioned himself as the person who can deliver it,” said political analyst Sergio Aguayo. “The PRI is better organized. It has more money. It controls more state governments, and Enrique has run an extraordinary campaign. Plus he’s handsome.”

The matter of ‘dinosaurs’

The question that obsesses observers in Mexico is whether Peña Nieto represents the old PRI — autocratic, corrupt, dominated by personalities Mexicans call “dinosaurs” — or the new PRI, which promises transparency, competence and clean hands.

“I don’t think Enrique Peña Nieto is a dinosaur, but there are people on his team you could call dinosaurs,” said Sergio Sarmiento, a columnist for the Reforma newspaper.

Whether the forward-looking Peña Nieto would fall back on a fossilized version of Mexican politics could prove to be a central tension of his presidency. It was certainly the world of his small-town upbringing in conservative, pious Atlacomulco, where the family home sat prominently on the public square, as firm a fixture as city hall or the town cathedral.

There are no banners or signs declaring Atlacomulco as the candidate’s home town, and the Peña Nieto who moved away after grade school returns only sporadically. But the candidate’s family still owns the historic home, hidden behind a high wall.

Its narrow street was fixed up and freshly painted a few years ago, on orders of the state governor, who placed his name in bold on a bronze plaque as another marker for a promise kept and a job completed.

ENRIQUE PEÑA NIETO, it reads.

 
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