"Indestructible" leftist challenges Mexico's big two

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ECATEPEC, Mexico, Mar 13 (Reuters) The leftist candidate leading Mexico's presidential race brushed off growing criticism that he is a populist ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying he was ''politically indestructible.'' Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who leads opinion polls by up to 9 percentage points, responded to his rivals' criticism as his party took on the ruling establishment in a local election in the country's most populous state.

President Vicente's Fox's conservative party accused Lopez Obrador on Friday of illegally receiving aid from US foeChavez. The leftist's party strongly denies that.

Former Mexican President Carlos Salinas warned against populism, in an apparent attack on the left-wing candidate.

Lopez Obrador, who promises to give priority to Mexico's poor if he wins the July 2 election, was unfazed.

''They can't touch us. When you have ideals, when you are not moved by ambition, power or money you are politically invulnerable,'' the former mayor told a rally in the southern, sugar-producing town of Cuautla.

''I don't want to say you are indestructible because they'll start questioning that but why not say politically indestructible?'' Lopez Obrador's bitter foe Salinas, who ruled Mexico from 1988-94, said in a speech in the United States at the weekend that Latin America should be wary of populist ''strongmen''.

Rhetoric has grown in the past few weeks as opponents Felipe Calderon from the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, and Roberto Madrazo of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, see the left's opinion poll lead narrowing slightly.

DISILLUSIONED Lopez Obrador's Party of the Democratic Revolution went for a morale-boosting victory over the two other parties in elections for mayors and local deputies in the key State of Mexico yesterday.

As in much of the country, Lopez Obrador's party is the third force in the state, a U-shaped swathe of suburbs, rust-belt towns and rural land around Mexico City.

But many are disillusioned at corruption by the PRI, which has ruled the state for decades. It holds more than half the 125 municipalities and dominates state Congress.

Previous governor Arturo Montiel, a one-time PRI presidential contender, is under investigation for illicit enrichment after newspapers accused him of owning a string of expensive homes in Mexico, Paris and Spain.

''We have seen the PRI's corruption for years. We now want a change,'' Rene Espindola, a hardware merchant, said in the gritty satellite town of Ecatepec.

It is Mexico's last big election before the presidential poll.

Fox's PAN is strong in posh residential districts and blue-collar areas of the State of Mexico.

It controls some of the largest municipalities in the state such as Tlalnepantla, an industrial powerhouse.

But Fox's federal government has not carried out promises to create millions of jobs and strong economic growth. Lopez Obrador's leftists say the time is now right to give them a chance both at the local and national level.

''It is their turn now,'' said unemployed laborer Armando Pulido, 43, in a poor neighborhood where houses are perched on a dusty hillside lacking piped water.

The two other parties are generally better organized and richer than Lopez Obrador's PRD. He says he lacks money for the kind of expensive media advertising campaigns his rivals have started to roll out.

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