By Nick Miroff and William Booth, Washington Post
ATLACOMULCO, Mexico – 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.
With the July 1 presidential vote just six weeks away, Peña Nieto holds a solid double-digit lead in polls, and yet Mexican voters and U.S. observers confess 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 and ally in the fight against drug cartels.
“Do people really know him?” said pollster Roy Campos. “No. But they want to get to know him.”
Disparaged by his opponents as a pretty puppet and a telegenic con man, the 45-year-old Peña Nieto is in fact a masterful retail politician, who through message discipline and sophisticated marketing has made himself the new face of the old Institutional Revolutionary Party, the PRI, the autocratic political machine that ran Mexico through a blend of corruption and coercion for 71 years.
Pena Nieto was born into the PRI here 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 some day.”
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 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, setting him on a path to this year’s presidential run.
One of his mentors was family member Arturo Montiel, who proceeded him as governor and later faced charges he enriched himself with public money.
“Who is Enrique Peña Nieto, really?” said Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the left’s presidential candidate, at the first debate, expressing aloud a question on many minds.
“He’s been following a script all along. It’s like a storyboard,” said Jenaro Villamil, a reporter with the muckraking Mexican 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, now cited by Pena Nieto’s rivals, Villamil claims that as governor Peña Nieto gave millions to the network in advertising contracts to guarantee maximum exposure on Televisa programming, charges the candidate rejects.
Pena Nieto says the Mexican people want change, and he is the agent. Current Mexican President Felipe Calderon of the ruling National Action Party is constitutionally barred from running for re-election.
The stiff, stubborn Calderon often cast himself a military general, whether battling Mexico’s criminal mafias or 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 the pollster Campos, reaching deep into crowds at political rallies to embrace supporters. “All presidential campaign are a process of seduction.”
U.S. officials and some members of Congress are unsure how committed Peña Nieto is to press 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 he is more interested in fighting the crime that hurts ordinary Mexicans — like 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; what they care about is 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 stopping in all of Mexico’s 31 states to sign campaign pledges in the presence of a notary public.
As he did during his tenure as governor of the State of Mexico, he plans to rule by checklist, knocking off each public project — hospitals, highways, schools — as a promise kept.
In this sense, Peña Nieto is casting himself less as a Mexican politician, and more a leader. His politics are hard to pin down, as his presidential proposals — most of them still vague — are a sampling from the left, right and center.
Peña Nieto promises to be an effective administrator who can get reforms passed, bridges built and jobs created. “I keep my promises,” he says over and over.
Peña Nieto’s opponents have tried to undermine his central message, with attack ads denouncing him as a “liar,” claiming 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 devout Catholic confessed that he fathered two children out of wedlock, by two different women, during his marriage to his first wife, Mónica Pretelini.
Pretelini died of an epileptic attack on January 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 Angélica Rivera, who starred in the popular drama “Distilled Love,” about a simple farm girl from the sticks who faces wickedness in the big city. The couple married in 2010.
Peña Nieto’s infidelities do not appear to have hurt him so far with voters, though his main rival, National Action Party candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, used the occasion of Mexico’s Mother’s Day on Thursday to criticize him as a deadbeat dad who failed to take “responsibility” for his actions.
Unlike past presidents, who spent time in the United States and often attending universities there, Peña Nieto does not speak much English. He attended the Panamerican University in Mexico City, founded by the conservative Opus Dei Catholic movement,and graduated with a master’s degree in administration from the Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies of Monterrey.
“People want change, and he has positioned himself as the person who can deliver it,” said political analyst 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 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, 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 Atlacomuclo, where the family home sat prominently on the public square, as firm a fixture as city hall or the town cathedral.
Today there are no banners or signs declaring Atlacomulco as the candidate’s hometown, and Peña Nieto returns only sporadically, having moved away after grade school. But the candidate’s family still owns the historic home along the square, 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 of a promise kept and a job completed: ENRIQUE PEÑA NIETO, it reads.