By Noe Torres and Anthony Esposito
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – It would not be fatal for Mexico if the United States provokes the collapse of the North American Free Trade Agreement, presidential frontrunner Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said on Tuesday in the last televised debate before the July 1 election.
Asked what he would do if the talks fail to renegotiate the deal that underpins the vast majority of Mexico’s trade, Lopez Obrador said he would redirect the economy towards the internal market and revive the rural economy.
“I am going to suggest that the treaty remains, but (the end of NAFTA) cannot be fatal for Mexicans, our country has a lot of natural resources, a lot of wealth,” he said in the round table discussion between the four candidates in the city of Merida.
Drawn out negotiations called by Donald Trump with Canada and the United States to modernize NAFTA have reached a deadlock since the U.S. president imposed steel and aluminum tariffs on the trade partners.
With just over two weeks before voters head to the polls, the debate was one of the last chances for the pack of trailing candidates to whittle down leftist Lopez Obrador’s lead.
Lopez Obrador, who has built a double digit in most polls with promises to end corruption, faced attacks from his closest rival Ricardo Anaya who accused him of handing out contracts without public tenders when he was mayor of Mexico City.
Lopez Obrador denied the charge.
The former Mexico City mayor, in his third bid to reach the presidency, came out unscathed from two prior debates and has since widened his lead in polls.
The 64-year old Lopez Obrador has benefited from widespread disenchantment with the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) over political corruption, record levels of violence and sluggish economic growth.
He has double the support of Anaya, who heads a right-left coalition, according to the most recent nationwide survey.
PRI candidate Jose Antonio Meade, who is running third in most polls, and independent hopeful Jaime Rodriguez, also baited Lopez Obrador.
Lopez Obrador has cut a more relaxed figure on the campaign trail than in previous years, mostly avoiding the kind of outbursts that in the past helped adversaries depict him as a radical menace to stability in Latin America’s No. 2 economy.
The gray-haired politician has painted himself as more of a pragmatist and now says he wants to broker a deal with Trump to stem illegal immigration through jobs and development rather than a border wall.
Still, an election win by Lopez Obrador could make already-strained U.S.-Mexico relations even more difficult due to Trump and his often directly opposing nationalist visions.
At Tuesday’s debate, moderators focus questions on subjects including economic growth, poverty and inequality.
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