Mexico presidential hopefuls set for first debate

Mexico's presidential hopefuls face off in their first televised debate Sunday, with opponents of frontrunner Enrique Pena Nieto keen to make up ground in what so far appears to be a one-horse race.

The latest poll from the Mitofsky institute, conducted at the start of May, gave 48 percent support to the slick Pena Nieto from the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for 71 years to 2000.

Josefina Vazquez Mota, from the ruling conservative National Action Party (PAN), scored 28 percent while leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) won 23 percent.

The fourth candidate in the July 1 election, Gabriel Quadri from the New Alliance party, which is linked to a powerful teacher's union, had just one percent.

Amid a raging drug war, high levels of poverty and widespread inequality, the stakes are high in the race to replace President Felipe Calderon, but the candidates have so far failed to drum up much enthusiasm.

"The (policy) debate is very superficial and hasn't aroused the interest of many citizens," said analyst Jose Antonio Crespo from the Center for Research and Economic Teaching (CIDE), one month after the start of campaigning.

It was unclear whether the first of only two televised debates would shake up the campaign, with the candidates set to receive the questions beforehand.

In a further setback, the two largest television networks have chosen not to air the debate on their main channels, where they will instead show a popular dance competition and a playoff game between two of Mexico's top football teams.

Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost in the 2006 presidential election, accused the TV stations of playing down the debate because they favor Pena Nieto, who has the least to gain and has already made several gaffes when speaking unscripted.

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