The men Mexicans call "the Fantastic Four" presented a revolutionary spectacle on live television tonight--four candidates publicly competing for the presidential nomination of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

The four were taking part in the first televised debate in the first presidential primary in 70 years of uninterrupted rule by the party, known as the PRI by its Spanish-language initials. During the hour-long slugfest, the two leading contenders launched into vitriolic personal attacks the likes of which the party had never witnessed publicly before this year. It was a watershed event in a country in which, despite the facade of democracy, every president since the 1930s has handpicked his successor.

Roberto Madrazo Pintado, the governor of Tabasco state who is running as the party outsider, used the debate to sharpen his already harsh criticism of former interior minister Francisco Labastida Ochoa, widely considered the party hierarchy's favorite. But Labastida, who previously shied away from direct personal attacks, fired back calling Madrazo "two-faced."

The debate was one of the most visible signs yet of a history-shattering primary campaign that is transforming candidates and Mexican politics from the staid, predictable electioneering of the past into the media-savvy, consultant-driven, image-conscious campaigning of an electronic-age democracy.

It was unclear how many people watched or listened, but analysts said the debate--the only one scheduled before the Nov. 7 primary--could have a major impact on the fortunes of the four men vying for the PRI nomination to run in the general election, set for July 2, 2000.

In a cantina in Mexico City's historic district, patrons watching the debate on television expressed surprise at the bare-knuckles attacks of the two front-runners.

"He's breaking the rules!" shouted Fernando Escobar in response to one of Madrazo's verbal punches. "That's going to come back to haunt him."

But in a snap telephone survey by Indemerc Louis Harris pollsters in which 700 viewers and listeners were questioned minutes after the debate ended, 40 percent of the respondents said Madrazo had won, while 27 percent gave the edge to Labastida. A nationwide poll of 400 viewers by the Mexico City newspaper Reforma showed 30 percent saying Madrazo won, vs. 20 percent for Labastida.

The two other candidates, former Puebla state governor Manuel Bartlett Diaz and former PRI leader Humberto Roque Villanueva, confirmed their status as traditional party loyalists, chiefly interested in maintaining PRI unity and avoiding attacks.

The Harris snap poll showed 16 percent of those surveyed believed Bartlett had won the debate, and 9 percent named Roque as the victor. The Reforma poll had Bartlett and Roque even with 12 percent each.

The debate was important for symbolic as well as practical reasons, and it highlighted one of the ironies of Mexico's election season: The PRI, long criticized as autocratic and dictatorial, is engaging in a more open process of candidate selection than rival parties.

"This has never happened before," marveled Ignacio Velasquez, 37, who tuned into the debate at the downtown cantina. "None of the other parties are doing this. If the party hadn't done this, who knows if I would still be in the PRI."

The candidates of the two main opposition parties--Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Vicente Fox of the right-center National Action Party (PAN)--have been a forgone conclusion for more than a year. Although the two opposition parties have scheduled primaries, the events are designed more to anoint rather than select their candidates.

PRI officials say their new openness reflects a commitment to internal party democracy that they hope will stem growing defections of voters and candidates to opposition parties, which in recent years have scored unprecedented election victories over the PRI.

Opposition politicians and even some PRI insiders have questioned how far the party is willing to go. But to the surprise of many, the primary campaign has evolved into a battle between Labastida and Madrazo, principally because of a the ad campaign Madrazo has used to attack Labastida as a creature of the PRI machine. In a recent poll, Madrazo held a 13 point lead over Labastida among likely primary voters.

In tonight's debate, "the surprise was that Labastida was quite forceful in his response," political analyst Sergio Sarmiento said. "He accused Madrazo of lying, and both accused each other of owing things to [former president Carlos] Salinas. That's very important in Mexico today, because it would be the kiss of death." Salinas, whose name has become synonymous with cronyism and corruption, is living in self-imposed exile.

The debate and primary are part of an electoral reform package designed by President Ernesto Zedillo, who along with other party leaders concluded that the PRI had to become more open and democratic in the face of dwindling support from voters fed up with the party's history of vote-rigging and corruption.

Zedillo himself gave up the biggest prerogative--personally selecting the PRI's presidential candidate--and instead, backed an open primary, which set the stage for tonight's debate.

The new openness carries numerous risks for a party that for decades has resolved its internal disputes and rivalries behind closed doors. There is no tradition of being a good loser and embracing the victor after a hard-fought race; in fact, the losers of PRI power struggles often cry fraud and resign from the party.

Opinion Poll

In the latest Indemerc Louis Harris public opinion poll, Roberto Madrazo and Francisco Labastida were far ahead of the other two candidates:

Madrazo 54.4%

Labastida 41.0%

Other two or don't know 4.6%

The Primary Candidates

The four primary candidates from Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) participated in a nationally televised debate last night. They will face off in the party's first open presidential primary on Nov. 7.

Francisco Labastida Ochoa, 57

Former interior and agriculture secretary, former governor of Sinaloa state. An economist with ties to both the reformist and old guard wings of the party. Campaign hurt but also helped by perception he is the "official" candidate of the PRI.

Roberto Madrazo Pintado, 47

Governor of Tabasco state (now on leave), son of respected ex-PRI president. Running a populist campaign as an outsider against the party, with catchy ads and slogans, despite ties to the PRI's old guard and charges of questionable campaign financing.

Manuel Bartlett Diaz, 63

Former governor of Puebla state, former education and interior secretary. Urbane and charismatic standard bearer of the PRI old guard. Campaign hurt by lack of money and old allegations of vote-rigging and ties to drug traffickers, which he denies.

Humberto Roque Villanueva, 55

Former president of the PRI and federal congressman. Underfunded campaign seen as a bit of a lark. Dogged by poor showing of the PRI under his leadership in the July 1997 elections, when the party lost its first mayoral race in Mexico City.

SOURCE: Staff reports