Mexico's presidential candidates have moved into cyberspace, where their campaigns are bombarding voters with online games, cartoons and attack e-mails ahead of the July 2 vote.
With more than 20 million Mexicans now using the Web, this is the first election where the Internet could make a real difference in Mexico. Most Internet users are young, and so is the electorate: more than 40 percent of the 71 million registered voters are under age 30.
Both top contenders have flashy online appeals. Felipe Calderon, the conservative candidate, is a superhero fighting dinosaurs and sharp-toothed fish in an Internet video game satirizing his rivals.
"This is the first Mexican election in which the Internet is having a real impact," said his spokesman, Arturo Sarukhan. "Our war room believes it is a crucial vote-winning tool."
The leftist camp of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador hit back with its own e-mail campaign, which it insists is homegrown. One message, titled "Lies," includes a slide show portraying his opponents as vampires and Nazi propagandists.
"They show the creativity of a social movement," his spokeswoman, Claudia Sheinbaum, said. "People are outraged at seeing the candidate attacked so viciously and want to do something."
Many of the e-mail messages forwarded again and again by Calderon supporters call Lopez Obrador a corrupt demagogue and a danger to Mexico. Some also reveal Mexico's stark class divisions.
"The uncultured Lopez Obrador will break the law and protect criminals," says one e-mail that launched a long thread of responses. "If you know a taxi driver or cleaning lady, or anyone else without education, let them know what waits for them."
Other e-mails claim Lopez Obrador, nicknamed "El Peje" after the sharp-toothed fish of his native Tabasco state, failed his university exams and direct readers to what purports to be an academic study finding him mentally unfit for office.
The negative e-mails support Calderon's radio and TV campaign, which include spots that flash the words "danger" and "lies" over images of the former Mexico City mayor.
Lopez Obrador campaign coordinator Ricardo Monreal filed a complaint with the federal Attorney General's Office last month claiming that President Vicente Fox's administration used government workers to send out 7 million e-mails backing Calderon.
Calderon spokesman Sarukhan compared the legal challenge to "throwing smoke bombs."
One of the first political movements in Mexico to use the Internet effectively was the leftist Zapatista rebellion in the 1990s, which won international sympathy through rhetorical attacks on the Institutional Revolutionary Party that ruled for seven decades.
PRI candidate Roberto Madrazo now trails in third place, and e-mails favoring this "dinosaur" are notably sparse. That is because most PRI voters are too old or too poor to use the Internet, said pollster Jorge Buendia of Ipsos Buendia.
Calderon is winning the e-mail war, but Buendia said that will likely only reinforce his support because most Internet users are educated professionals already sympathetic to the candidate.
Calderon's advisers reportedly met once with US consultant Dick Morris but did not hire him. The campaign will not comment.
Sarukhan also sought advice from www.moveon.org organizers, who tried to defeat President George W. Bush in 2004.
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