Armando Moreno is voting for a president. But it won’t be for Al Gore, George W. Bush or any other U.S. candidate.

Moreno, 51, a shoemaker by trade, will drive from his South Gate home to Tijuana this Saturday, where he will cast his vote in Mexico’s presidential elections. A legal U.S. resident, Moreno is one of the thousands of Mexican expatriates who are expected this weekend to drive across the 2,000-mile border that separates the United States and Mexico.

No one knows for sure how many Mexican nationals living in the U.S. will travel to border towns to vote. But a study done by the Federal Electoral Institute in Mexico showed that there are at least 1.5 million voters who are eligible to vote because they were born in Mexico and are registered Mexican voters.

Sixty-four voting polls, especially made for Mexican nationals living in the U.S., are already set up in border towns such as Tijuana and Mexicali, according to the Federal Electoral Institute. The polls along the border are capable of handling a total of up to 75,000 ballots.

Political observers consider the July 2 ballot the most important Mexican presidential election in decades. For the first time in 71 years, at least one candidate, Vicente Fox of the National Action Party (PAN), is considered a serious threat to end the hegemony of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).

For months, the polls gave Fox the lead by a wide margin. It’s the first time since 1929 that a non-PRI candidate has been ahead in a presidential race. Even the PRI and its candidate, Francisco Labastida, have acknowledged Fox as a serious contender — something that was almost unthinkable in the past. Recent polls indicate that Fox and Labastida are in a virtual dead heat. Trailing in third place is Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the candidate of the more progressive Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

Like thousands of his countrymen who came from the state of Guanajuato during a drought in the early 1970s, Moreno has made shoes all of his working life. He owns businesses in Long Beach and downtown Los Angeles.

Moreno feels a particular responsibility for casting a vote in this election. “I want to take part in an election in a way that I felt I couldn’t when I was living in Mexico,” said Moreno, who intends to vote for Fox. “I want to feel that I am part of making a change happen.”

As the president of Club Leon, Moreno is leading a group of more than one thousand “panistas” who are planning to vote in Tijuana, Ensenada or Mexicali. The organization is named after a soccer team from Guanajuato, a PAN stronghold.

The group includes shoemaker Salvador Padilla, 53, who has an especially personal reason for supporting Fox — the presidential candidate comes from his hometown of Leon, which is known for its shoemaking industry. Being from that town, Fox knows how to help businessmen in the shoe industry compete with companies from China, Padilla said.

Historically, support for the PRI is weaker outside Mexico than in the country itself. Emigrants tend to blame the party for most of what’s wrong with their nation. But Moreno does not chide Labastida. A “panista” since he moved from Leon to Los Angeles almost 30 years ago, Moreno says simply that Fox is more in line with his political beliefs. Fox, he said, speaks the language of the common man and understands business and the needs of people in business. Fox’s PAN is known as a rightward-leaning, pro-business party.

Though some experts question whether the votes of U.S. residents could swing the election, all three candidates have taken their campaigns into U.S. territory. They understand that the expatriates have an influence beyond their numbers. For one thing, Mexican emigrants send about $7 billion a year home to relatives. They are sometimes a Mexican family’s primary breadwinner, and they wield considerable sway over relatives.

Going to the border to vote is fine, but the best way to have a say in Mexico’s elections is to influence families back home, said Martha Real, the director of Mimexca (Mexican Migrants for a Change), an organization that seeks to increase voter participation among Mexican nationals in the Southwest.

“Family ties among Mexicans are very important,” Real said.

All three candidates have urged Mexican nationals — and even Mexican naturalized citizens who now hold dual citizenship — to steer their relatives in Mexico to vote in their favor. In May, Fox and Cardenas toured California and other U.S. states.

During rallies held in Northern California, Fox proved that he was almost as much in vogue among expatriates as with resident Mexicans. A former executive with Mexico’s Coca-Cola company and the former governor of Guanajuato, Fox’s Marlboro Man looks (he stands 6-foot-5), country swagger (he wears cowboy boots) and Mexican rural-sage voice have won over many converts.

But even Cardenas, who occupies third place in the polls, should not be counted out, said Felipe Aguirre, a supporter in Los Angeles. Many Mexicans believe Cardenas won the 1988 presidential election, but was denied victory by widespread election fraud on the part of the ruling party. Cardenas loyalists also recall that their candidate is the son of beloved 1930s Mexican President Lazaro Cardenas.

Though fragmented into many groups, the PRD has many sympathizers in the Southland. “El Ingeniero,” as Cardenas is called by his supporters, was greeted by cheering crowds during a May visit to Los Angeles.

Cardenas is good at coming from behind, said Felipe Aguirre, the director of the Maywood-based Pro Uno, a group that includes PRD supporters.

On Friday, about 500 Pro Uno members will join a group of professional cowboys, or charros, who have come all the way from the state of Washington, horse trailers in tow, to vote in Tijuana, Aguirre said. The cattle herders will appear on horseback at rallies to drum up support for Cardenas, including a stop in Lincoln Heights’ Plaza de la Raza Park.

According to Aguirre, Cardenas has promised to make things better for his countrymen who are forced to undertake perilous journeys to cross the U.S. border illegally. The North American Free Trade Agreement has increased the number of jobs, he added, but not salaries.

Labastida is the only candidate of the top three who did not tour the States in person. But “Friends of Labastida” has actively promoted him in California, Texas and Chicago, said Carlos Villanueva, the Pasadena-based coordinator.

An eight-page color ad for Labastida ran some weeks ago in several Spanish-language newspapers in the U.S., including Los Angeles’ La Opinión. During a 1999 California tour, Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo held rallies in Los Angeles to cheering crowds. He did not openly tout Labastida, but shoring up PRI support had to be one goal of his tour.

Labastida also has advanced his ticket among influential Southwest Latinos. Last week, he held a town hall–style meeting with California community activists, including Hermandad Mexicana’s Bert Corona and Fernando Chavez, the son of the late United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez.

If he wins, Labastida has promised to tour California as an elected president, Villanueva said. Like Fox and Cardenas, Labastida has promised safer Mexican roads for visiting expatriates.

Such is the weight of the expatriates that plans are under way to organize the election of Mexican legislators who would specifically represent their countrymen living in the U.S. All three major Mexican parties boast candidates from Los Angeles.

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