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MEXICO CITY- The Aug. 21 national election in Mexico is mainly being fought on painted walls bearing candidates' names and on plastic posters strung as banners along main streets.

While some rudimentary modern-day marketing techniques are becoming evident, political campaigning in this country for the most part has all the trappings of a pre-television era.

This year's presidential race has nine candidates, but only two are serious challengers to frontrunner Ernesto Zedillo Ponce de Leon, whose ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party has governed Mexico for 65 years. Although Mr. Zedillo leads the polls, he did not enter the race until March 29 when he replaced Luis Donaldo Colosio, assassinated during a campaign rally in Tijuana.

Since the PRI's continued rule was barely challenged until 1988, Mexico has little experience-and therefore little political savvy-common in campaigns from its neighbors to the north.

Now the PRI, facing its most contested election ever, knows it will have to fight for votes.

PRI has chosen local shop Alazraki y Asociados for an image campaign, but won't say what it's spending. What's known is that the party has the deepest pockets by far, and lobbied unsuccessfully for a higher amount than the $40 million the government set as the ceiling for a single party's ad budget.

The National Action Party (PAN), by contrast, is spending only $1.5 million on its effort, handled by Velazquez Marin. A spokeswoman for the Party of the Democratic Revolution said its $1.5 million budget is too paltry for an agency so the party is relying on posters and banners created in-house.

Major obstacles still remain for a full-blown marketing effort. Political parties can afford space in print media, but circulations are so low-analysts estimate that only 1 million of Mexico City's 20 million residents read newspapers-that the ads wouldn't be effective. That leaves too costly electronic media.

By law, all of Mexico's political parties receive 15 minutes of free TV time a month, but have no say about when. Usually, it gets scheduled during programming like Sunday morning when few potential voters are watching, and parties must also use the full quarter-hour at once.

National TV advertising for a mass audience on a more effective scale would require buying time on quasi-monopoly Grupo Televisa, which charges $75,000 for :30 of prime-time TV on its highest-rated station Channel 2. Televisa offers substantial discounting to advertisers paying upfront for the entire year during the preceding October, but opposition parties lack the funds to pay in advance.

Radio is more manageable, but is so fragmented with 55 stations in Mexico City alone that covering a mass audience is still expensive. According to D'Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles, the average cost of a :30 radio spot is $114.

PAN, having a history of espousing free markets and a conservative social policy, is the most progressive of the three. "We're trying to professionalize our marketing tools as much as possible," said Abel Vicencio, the director of Producciones PAN, a production house handling video production for the party. The party is hiring a pollster, Estrategia S.C. of Guadalajara, designing a four-state campaign to position the candidate and using radio strategically. PAN began a series of radio spots May 7, making Mr. de Cevallos the only candidate on the air so far.

The PRI is also using a pollster but won't discuss specifics, while PRD lacks funds for a pollster. The use of polls is increasing by both political parties and the media despite widespread doubts about its reliability.

Much of PAN's effort, however, has been limited to street banners bearing a picture of its bearded candidate created by local shop Velazquez Marin along with some 23 million flyers.

At PRD, an internal communications debate has focused on revising the image of candidate Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, running second in most polls. Mr. Cardenas is widely seen as too serious and his campaign struggled over picturing his infrequent smile on posters. The candidate's image is still under study, said communications secretary Marcos Rascon.

The latest party strategy has been to plaster available space here with posters carrying a picture of the 94-year-old labor leader Fidel Velazquez, a true relic of the PRI old guard with the slogan: "the true face of the system."

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