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Originally published Friday, May 4, 2012 at 6:33 AM

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Mexico's leftist tries to overcome past mistakes

For a man whose anger and inflexibility may have cost him his dreams of the presidency, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is surprisingly calm and friendly on the campaign trail.

Associated Press

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MEXICO CITY —

For a man whose anger and inflexibility may have cost him his dreams of the presidency, leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is surprisingly calm and friendly on the campaign trail.

In his second presidential bid, the white-haired shopkeeper's son beloved by many poor Mexicans rides the subway, waits in airports for economy flights, patiently poses for pictures with supporters and even lobs verbal roses at Mexico's business community in what he has dubbed his "Republic of Love" campaign.

It is a far cry from the fiery orator who during his 2006 presidential run told then-President Vicente Fox to "shut up, chachalaca (noisy bird)" and said "let the devil take your (political) institutions." Adding to his problems that year, he decided to skip one of the only two candidates' debates and bitterly accused Mexico's corporations, television stations and newspapers of conspiring against him.

Private business groups paid for attack ads calling him "a danger to Mexico" similar to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and his lead vanished on election day. He lost to President Felipe Calderon by a razor-thin 0.56 percentage point.

Lopez Obrador claimed he was robbed of a win by election fraud and refused to accept the result. His supporters launched a huge camp-out protest that paralyzed central Mexico City for a month and a half, something that still rankles many residents.

But Lopez Obrador's next step - after lifting the Mexico City blockade - was even more confrontational.

He declared himself the "legitimate president," had himself "sworn in" to office in December 2006, and led an alternative government that did very little.

Analysts say those tactical errors are costing him in this year's July 1 presidential election, even though he has apologized for the crippling protests in the capital.

"The blockade on Reforma (the city's main avenue) looked in the end like a temper tantrum, and the alternative government and legitimate presidency, a comic opera," said Mexican political analyst and columnist Jorge Zepeda Patterson.

Some polls show that almost one-third of Mexicans say they would never vote for his Revolutionary Democratic Party and his negative public image, though falling, is higher than his rivals. Mexicans seem to either love him or hate him.

His fuzzy "Republic of Love" campaign to end the hard feelings hasn't really caught on.

He remains mired far behind in the polls, and is in contention for second place largely because of the decline of Josefina Vazquez Mota of the governing National Action Party. Both are 15 to 20 percentage points behind front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of the old ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party.

Ignacio Marvan, who served as one of Lopez Obrador's advisers in the 2006 campaign, acknowledged that the "legitimate government" move was controversial. "There were people who really agreed and people who really didn't even within the movement."

But Marvan said Lopez Obrador isn't a hothead who gets carried away by his emotions, as critics like to portray him, but a man with passionate convictions.

"He is emotional ... he doesn't have atole in his veins," Marvan said, referring to a thick, mushy corn drink popular in Mexico.

This emotion is seen at his legendary political rallies, at which supporters chant his last name Obrador, which roughly translates as "worker" in Spanish, and wear amulets, scarves and T-shirts bearing his fatherly image.

Fueled by the emotion of the crowd, the normally slow-talking, phlegmatic Lopez Obrador seems to awaken and is whipped up to rhetorical heights.

"He likes it," said Manuel Camacho Solis, his 2006 campaign coordinator. "When you were at those meetings, the fervor, the passion was such that you thought you had the entire country in your hand."

"That confidence led him to make a strategic error in thinking he had more support than he did, making him think that he didn't have to negotiate with anyone," Camacho Solis said.

This time around, the 59-year-old candidate is assiduously wooing businessmen, seeking to keep them from turning on him as they did in 2006.

He says things meant to reassure business interests, like how he wants to revive domestic consumption and has no plans to nationalize anybody's company. His platform is fairly moderate, pledging to use the state-owned oil company to help spur the economy.

But Lopez Obrador is also frank about areas where the two sides disagree, like structural reforms meant to loosen Mexico's labor laws or open the energy sector to private investment - ideas he opposes.

"We have responsibility to talk this way, not to sugarcoat the pill, not to try to ingratiate ourselves with you," Lopez Obrador told businessmen at a meeting this month. "I could tell you that we are going to carry out the structural reforms, but I don't believe in that."

While Lopez Obrador has tried to smooth his confrontational demeanor this time, his political essence hasn't changed much since his days as a social development official in his swampy home state of Tabasco.

Tabasco residents remember when Lopez Obrador was told that local Indians didn't have enough dry land to plant crops. He dragooned a bunch of barges and backhoes from the state-owned oil company and dredged out canals in the wetlands, piling the soil up into narrow spits of land for the villagers' use.

Later, he led villagers whose crops had been damaged by oil spills in blockades of oil wells, demanding compensation.

His most famous initiative as Mexico City mayor in the early 2000s was a program to provide a small, $50 monthly pension to people over 70, which earned him the fierce loyalty of the city's elderly.

The fact that Lopez Obrador's fundamental message hasn't changed much may help him in the race against the overly managed, glossy campaigns of his rivals, said Zepeda Patterson, the columnist.

"For good or ill, the man from Tabasco has been consistent over the years," Zepeda Patterson wrote. "A critical view of the nation's needs and a personal moral solidity are inherent traits of his personality, not the creation of some campaign war room."

"Despite his defects, Lopez Obrador is an authentic presence amid the propaganda cliches his rivals are displaying," he said.

The supposedly kinder, gentler Lopez Obrador was on view at a campaign rally this week when an apparently unbalanced heckler jumped on stage and rambled on about a conspiracy theory.

The candidate kept his staff from forcibly hauling the heckler off stage.

"It's normal. That's an expression of freedom," Lopez Obrador quipped, after politely asking the man to let him continue his planned speech.

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