MEXICO CITY — Mexico's new power brokers turned up in polka-dot aprons and stretch pants. They filled the capital's imposing National Auditorium, bouncing babies and scooting after toddlers. They were moms, and they were being assiduously wooed by presidential candidate Francisco Labastida.
"You have the power," Labastida cried to the 9,000 women. "You will decide the next president of Mexico!"
You've come a long way, baby. For years, politics was a man's world in Mexico, a ritual of tequila-lubricated lunches and macho chants. But, as the Labastida rally a week ago demonstrated, women have taken on unprecedented importance in Sunday's presidential election, the most competitive ever.
The female vote is especially critical to the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI. Its candidate, Labastida, is in a virtual tie with Vicente Fox of the center-right National Action Party, or PAN, according to polls. But the PRI enjoys an advantage of up to 10 percentage points with Mexico's women, who tend to be more wary of change.
The party's calculations come down to this: If it extends its 71-year rule, it will be thanks to the madres in the fatherland.
"In the past, there wasn't any support for women," Maria del Socorro Perez, a 54-year-old school secretary, said at the Labastida rally. "But from invitations like this, we see the parties are thinking about us."
The new attention to women reflects a sweeping change in political participation. Mexican women didn't get the vote until 1953, more than three decades after their U.S. counterparts. For years, many didn't bother to cast ballots. But now, women make up 52 percent of Mexico's registered voters.
The surge in participation can be attributed to a variety of factors: women's increasing education levels, feminism and the introduction in 1993 of voter identification cards. The cards were aimed at reducing fraud, but in a country in which many poor women don't drive or hold formal jobs, the credentials meant far more.
"The electoral photo ID ... represented for millions of women the first opportunity to have identification," said Dulce Maria Sauri, the president of the PRI. "Using the credential is an affirmation of a woman's identity."
Analysts say the PRI has an advantage among Mexican women because they are generally less educated than the men, know less about politics and are more wary of change that could produce conflict.
"The PRI has been the dominant party for 71 years. It has widespread brand recognition. It takes additional political information for people to think about voting for the opposition," said Chappell Lawson, a political scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in Mexico.
Women also tend to be more dependent on government programs. Critics charge that the PRI is abusing such programs to pressure women voters, especially in poor rural areas. The party denies the charge.
While the PRI has an important edge among women, the gap has shrunk in recent months. The party is struggling to shore up its female base.
"People have more information about the opposition — they're less afraid of it," Lawson said. "Votes from women, like from every other sector of society, are increasingly at risk for the ruling party."
That has produced a startling change in Mexican campaigns.
Presidential candidates are giving unprecedented attention to women voters, promising everything from a government institute focusing on women's issues to a ban on the pregnancy tests required of female job applicants. Candidates regularly hold rallies and breakfasts with women. The major parties have armies of women going door to door.
No candidate has been more active than Labastida, who declares he will be the "women's president." He is promising free school lunches, expanded prenatal care, and English and computer classes for children.
In one recent television interview, Labastida waxed so long on women that the male anchor finally interrupted him. "What about us?" he demanded.
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In his speeches to female audiences, Labastida points out that women "have a brain, in addition to a heart and sensitivity." PRI candidates have sponsored beauty pageants as well as a male beefcake show to impress women.
Fox is no less subtle. The PAN candidate, whose alpha-male image includes cowboy boots and a belt buckle the size of a butter dish, listed his credentials in a Mother's Day appearance: I can iron. I can wash clothes. "I make fried eggs better than almost anyone," Fox asserted. "I break very few yolks."
He urged the assembled women to get out the vote for him. "Hike up your skirts!" he cried.
The campaign for the women's vote comes as the parties are featuring more female politicians than ever before. Both the PRI and the left-of-center Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which is in third place in the polls, are headed by women. The federal electoral authority has called on parties to ensure that at least 30 percent of their members of Congress are women, up from the current 19 percent.
Nonetheless, Mexico remains a traditional society. Much of the politicians' appeals are to homemakers and mothers, especially in TV advertising.
Labastida has highlighted his charismatic wife, Maria Teresa Uriarte, in television appearances. In a country in which candidates' families traditionally stay in the background, Uriarte has broken new ground, heading a pyramid-style organization of supporters and tirelessly campaigning.
In a not-so-subtle dig at Fox, who is divorced, Labastida constantly emphasizes how his marital relationship illustrates his respect for women. The PRI candidate doesn't mention that he is on his second marriage, or that he had a daughter out of wedlock while married to his first wife — a recently disclosed fact.
Critics charge that the PRI strategy for women goes beyond policy proposals and ads. They accuse the party of abusing government programs and buying votes by handing out bags of rice, beans and household goods to needy homemakers.
At the center of the storm is the federal welfare program Progresa, which dispenses cash to women to encourage them to keep their children healthy and in school. Opposition lawmakers have logged dozens of examples in which Progresa coordinators told women they would lose their payments if they didn't support the PRI.
That's the warning Elena Gutierrez, a mother of eight, got from a Progresa aide. Gutierrez, 45, receives about $25 a month from the program, an important sum for families in her poor farming village outside Villa Guerrero, in the central state of Mexico.
"I'm a bit confused. The vote is supposed to be secret," Gutierrez said as she scrubbed clothes on a washboard. "Do you think our aid will be cut off?"
Another homemaker, Lourdes Elizarraras, said the PRI had given away food packages, cement and roofing material to potential voters in the village. Critics say such handouts, while not necessarily illegal, are unethical.
But Elizarraras, 33, didn't understand that criticism.
"The PRD came to campaign here, but they didn't give us anything," she said with a shrug. "If the PRI helps me more, of course I'll vote for them."