Leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador appears to be gaining ground going into the final month of Mexico's presidential race, polls indicated Thursday, and analysts said student protests might be eroding front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto's aura of invincibility.
The protests have dogged Pena Nieto's campaign over the past two weeks, with demonstrators claiming that a win by his Institutional Revolution Party, which held the presidency for 71 years, would mark a return to Mexico's authoritarian past.
"Pena Nieto is deflating," said Lopez Obrador, who had long run third in the polls behind Pena Nieto and the current governing party's candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota. At one point, Pena Nieto led the two by 15 to 20 percentage points and the race had been considered all but over.
But a poll released Thursday by the newspaper Reforma said Pena Nieto led with only 29 percent support, with Lopez Obrador close at 26 percent while Vazquez Mota fell to 18 percent. The poll was conducted in late May and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points. A month earlier, Pena Nieto had led the leftist 32 percent to 21 percent.
A separate poll by the GEA/ISA firm gave Pena Nieto a stronger advantage, 33 percent to 21 percent for Lopez Obrador and 20 percent for Vazquez Mota. The result was a 3-point drop by the PRI candidate from the last poll and a 2-point rise by Lopez Obrador. The poll had a 3 percentage point margin for error.
Reforma's poll said about 32 percent of voters were still undecided or without a preference, compared with 22 percent in the GEA/ISA poll.
The results are a big boost for Lopez Obrador, who many have written off as unelectable because of the angry, disruptive street protests that he led following his narrow loss in the 2006 race to President Felipe Calderon. Lopez Obrador has sought this time to soften his image, appeal to the middle class and businessmen, and apologize to those who were affected by his weekslong blockade of downtown Mexico City in 2006.
The leftist has been helped by campaign missteps by Vazquez Mota and by the protests that have sought to emphasize the PRI's past as the unquestioned power for seven decades as well as alleged rights violations committed when Pena Nieto served as governor of Mexico State.
The protests appear to be having an effect, breaking the "aura of inevitability" that had hung over the Pena Nieto campaign, said political analyst John Ackerman of Mexico's National Autonomous University.
"The election was somehow being portrayed as boring," Ackerman said. "All of a sudden it's not boring."
Asked about the latest poll, Pena Nieto said that for him the most important poll is the July 1 election itself.
"I see several polls and without a doubt they are a good reference but nothing more," he said.
Aside from hurting the front-runner, the student movement is helping Lopez Obrador, who is supported by many of its members.
The student movement "hasn't come out publicly in favor of Lopez Obrador, but it doesn't have to," said political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo. "It is having an effect against Pena Nieto and for Lopez Obrador."
Accusations are already emerging that the Pena Nieto campaign, stung by the demonstrations against its candidate, has orchestrated the appearance of small groups of protesters at the events of its rivals.
After a heckler got up on stage with Vazquez Mota at an event this week, she suggested Pena Nieto was behind the incident.
"If they are ahead in the polls as they claim, why do they send us provocateurs?" Vasquez Mota said after the man was shooed off the stage.
A spokesman for the Pena Nieto campaign declined to comment on those accusations.
Lopez Obrador himself was stung this week when local media released a tape purportedly recorded during a meeting at which businessmen were allegedly asked to donate $6 million to his campaign.
A donation of that size, or any donation from a corporation, would violate Mexican electoral law, which requires that campaigns be financed mainly by public funds.
Lopez Obrador denied any involvement in illegal acts. He said the man heard making the fundraising pitch, identified as Luis Costa Bonino, does not work for his campaign. Costa Bonino is a friend of one of Lopez Obrador's media consultants.
"Thanks to all the people who trust us," Lopez Obrador said at his daily press briefing Thursday. "They can be sure I am not going to betray the people. We are going to govern for all Mexicans."
That was an apparent reference to his 2006 campaign slogan, "For the good of all, the poor come first," which he has since dropped in favor of a more inclusive slogan "for a loving republic."