Mexicans were divided on Wednesday over which of their presidential candidates had won a crucial live television debate.

Felipe Calderón, the centre-right candidate for the ruling National Action Party (PAN), and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the leftwing candidate, were running neck and neck in the latest poll, by El Universal newspaper, on 36 per cent each.

But according to several telephone polls published on Wednesday in Reforma, the daily newspaper, 44 per cent of people said they felt Mr Calderón had won the debate compared with just 30 per cent for Mr López Obrador.

Only 11 per cent of those asked believed Roberto Madrazo, candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) had won.

The result was not clearcut, however - of five panels of people selected by El Universal to simulate a cross-section of Mexican society, most participants said that Mr López Obrador, candidate for the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), had won.

Mr Calderon was by far the more aggressive of the two candidates. He attacked Mr López Obrador, the former mayor of Mexico City, on the high rates of crime and unemployment in the nation's capital, and said Mexicans had to "decide between two projects: one based on good sense - and one of chaos".

Mr López Obrador, who looked tired and moved awkwardly from side to side as he spoke, underlined his central message that his administration would "develop the country from the bottom and with the people", and that it would "orient the budget for the benefit of the masses and not for the elite".

A top aide to Felipe Calderón on Wednesday vowed to continue warning of the "dangers" Mr López Obrador posed to Mexico.

"López Obrador's policies would push Mexico backwards, would increase debt and would lead to instability," Arturo Sarukhán, Mr Calderón's foreign policy expert, told the FT on Tuesday.

Mr Sarukhán, widely considered to be Mr Calderón's first choice for foreign minister should he win the July 2 election, said confidence in the Calderón camp was running high and that there was a palpable sense of having come out on top in the debate, though there was still much work to be done to ensure victory in July.

On foreign policy, Mr Calderón said he would push for an accord on immigration - a goal that has so far eluded Vicente Fox, the current president. He also said his government would issue plastic cards to migrants living in the US that would enable them to send money back to their families in Mexico without paying commissions.

Mr López Obrador, by contrast, said his foreign policy would be "measured". “The best foreign policy is to have good domestic policy", he said.

On crime, Mr Calderón promised Mexicans "a firm hand" with life jail sentences for kidnappers. He said he would improve police efficiency by creating a national crime database, and said he would form a special agency to combat drugs.

Mr López Obrador underlined his belief that crime is a product of poverty and the lack of jobs. He defended his record as mayor of Mexico City, and said that any inroads he was unable to achieve in the capital was the result of poor economic performance under the Fox administration.

Dan Lund, a political analyst at MUND Americas, a consultancy in Mexico City, said the post debate in the coming days would likely prove more decisive than the debate itself, and dismissed the idea that Mexicans will concentrate on soccer from now on to the detriment of politics.

"These two things operate in separate universes," he said. "We are in for a very interesting few weeks."

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