By Anahi Rama
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Widely seen as a threat to private business, the left-wing runner-up in Mexico's 2006 presidential election is trying to recast himself as a moderate to boost his chances of winning power next year.
Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador narrowly lost the 2006 election and then claimed fraud, launching massive street protests that shut down central areas of Mexico City for weeks.
The protests backfired. Lopez Obrador emerged with the reputation of a messianic radical and he may struggle to shake that image and mount a serious challenge in 2012.
"I voted for him. But to be honest I didn't like the political pressure he used. By closing down (boulevard) Reforma he hurt businesses and turned off many voters. I won't vote for him again," said Alfredo Figueroa, 40, an anthropologist.
Lopez Obrador, 57, is trying to win back former supporters like Figueroa by projecting a softer image and tackling claims that he would wreck the economy if he were president. "Don't be fooled, I'm not against businessmen," he said recently.
He recently flew to the United States, Mexico's biggest trading partner, and pledged in a speech in Washington to fight monopolies and give priority to small and medium-sized firms.
The U.S. trip was immediately followed by a visit to Spain, the largest Mexican export market in Europe and home to a number of the most powerful banks in Mexico.
Lopez Obrador who also organized a business forum in the industrial northern city of Monterrey, a bastion of Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
"He has a more emotive and conciliatory message, but he maintains the discourse that the left wants to hear," said Roy Campos, director of the Mitofsky polling firm.
"The trip to the United States isn't really to give a message to the Americans, it's for the Mexicans, as if to say: 'Don't accuse me of being an extremist, I'm mixing with the people in power.'"
A recent Mitofsky poll showed that 29 percent of Mexicans have a negative view of the gray-haired Lopez Obrador. That is the highest negative rating of any of the main presidential hopefuls, although it is down from 47 percent in 2007.
The clear front-runner ahead of the July election is Enrique Pena Nieto of the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. He scored 49 percent in a recent poll by GCE and Lopez Obrador trailed way behind with 13.5 percent.
Lopez Obrador led the race for much of the 2006 election campaign, establishing a strong base of support among Mexico's poor, but Calderon overtook him in the final stages as fears mounted that Lopez Obrador might mismanage the economy. .
Since the financial crisis struck, the number of Mexicans living in poverty has increased to 52 million, creating an even bigger potential constituency for a leftist candidate.
Some still believe Lopez Obrador, a former welfare officer for indigenous people in his native state of Tabasco, can make a difference in Latin America's second biggest economy.
"Everyone who comes to power wants to take their cut and squeeze the people, but he was the only one who helped the old people, and single mothers," said shopkeeper Marisela, 40.
Still, polls show the former mayor of Mexico City has failed to capitalize on growing discontent with Calderon's conservative administration, which has struggled to create new jobs and bring violent drug cartels to heel.
"I don't think that people will give him another chance so easily," said political analyst Fernando Dworak.
First, Lopez Obrador has to win the nomination of his leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution, or PRD.
His rival inside the party is Marcelo Ebrard, a more moderate leftist who succeeded Lopez Obrador as Mexico City's mayor. Lopez Obrador has a clear advantage among party activists but polls show Ebrard could appeal more to the broader electorate.
The PRD has yet to decide whether it will pick its candidate with a vote of party members or by polling voters.
The rivalry with Ebrard has split the PRD and voters have turned away from it. Lopez Obrador won the vote in half of Mexico's states in 2006 but the party has failed to compete in a number of recent regional elections.
(Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Kieran Murray)