MEXICO CITY — Mexico's ruling party candidate who is trailing in third by many polls bombarded her rivals Sunday in the second and final presidential debate with accusations that they represent a return to the country's past of corruption and authoritarianism.
Josefina Vazquez Mota accused front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto of using public funds to create a spying agency and of hiding in the bathroom from students who heckled him in a May campaign appearance that sparked a protest movement, including a demonstration that drew 90,000 people to the streets of Mexico City hours before the debate.
"Mr. Pena Nieto, we don't want someone who is going to hide in the bathroom of a university to solve the country's problems," said Vazquez Mota, candidate for the National Action Party of President Felipe Calderon.
Pena Nieto denied he was hiding and said he applauded the awakening of student participation in the political process.
"It's a voice I respect," he said.
The more than two-hour debate mostly allowed the candidates to repeat their platforms and make a flood of promises to create jobs, increase salaries, improve education, lower violence and end hunger without real details.
Leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said he would save millions by rooting out corruption and cutting politicians' salaries, numbers that Vazquez Mota said didn't add up. She in turn emphasized her role as a woman and caretaker of the family and mentioned several times her support for indigenous women. Pena Nieto repeated several times that Mexicans will be able to provide for their families in the manner they deserve under his administration.
"The center of my proposal is that you earn more," he said.
Little seemed to change the dynamic of the race, which Pena Nieto leads by about 13 points in most polls.
Vazquez Mota, who is the first serious female candidate to run for Mexico's presidency, has faltered throughout the campaign. Lopez Obrador, meanwhile, has seen a slight surge in recent weeks to second place as Mexicans contemplate the return to power by Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled for 71 years with a combination of iron fist and corruption before being voted out in 2000.
Mexican voters appear ready to kick the PAN out of office after 12 years of Vicente Fox and Calderon, who launched an assault on drug cartels and whose term has seen more than 47,000 deaths from drug violence.
Negative advertising has spiked the last two weeks among all three major parties — the PRI, the PAN and Lopez Obrador's Democratic Revolution Party. But Vazquez Mota was most aggressive Sunday, forcing her rivals to respond.
She accused Lopez Obrador, a former member of the PRI, of supporting deadly government attacks on student protesters in 1968 and 1971. Some of the demonstrators on Sunday were commemorating June 10, 1971, when pro-government agents killed at least a dozen students at a leftist political demonstration in Mexico City.
Lopez Obrador said he was still in high school when the attacks happened.
The fourth candidate in the debate, Gabriel Quadri of the New Alliance party, has been drawing single digits in the polls. He asked and received commitments from his rivals not to criminalize women who seek abortions, which are illegal in the country except for Mexico City.
Vazquez Mota accused Quadri of being a puppet of the head of the teachers' union, Elba Esther Gordillo, a key Mexican power broker who can make or break politicians with her support and who is criticized for the sorry state of Mexico's public schools. "He has to ask his mommy on every idea," she said.
Analysts believe protests by young people have caused the recent slight sag in Pena Nieto's lead. PRI officials later questioned if the hecklers at the Iberoamerican University were students and accused them of being planted by rivals. They responded by showing their student ID card across social media venues.
Protesters on Sunday shouted, "Not one vote for the PRI!" and "Out with Pena!"
Candidates focused on Pena Nieto in the first debate in May, accusing him of lying about his record as governor of the state of Mexico and maintaining ties to unsavory elements of the PRI, which was known for buying votes and all-out coercion to stay in power for seven decades but is also credited with building many of Mexico's institutions and its social security safety net.
Now all the candidates are trying to paint rivals as the most corrupt.
Pena Nieto's foes have sought to link him to two former PRI governors in the border state of Tamaulipas, one whose properties were raided by Mexican officials and the other who U.S. prosecutors allege had ties to drug cartels.
Rivals also accuse Pena Nieto of paying Mexico's giant Televisa network for favorable coverage. Both the PRI and Televisa have vehemently denied this.
Two weeks ago, a leaked audio tape was released in which a Lopez Obrador supporter is heard asking businessmen for $6 million in campaign donations, which would be a violation of electoral laws. But the leaked version did not include the full conversation, in which another supporter is heard telling the businessmen that the leftist was not aware of or involved in the request.
Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter: http://twitter.com/agomezlicon
Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson contributed to this report.