The frontrunner in Mexico's presidential race has fended off rivals' attempts to paint him as a liar with corrupt backers, emerging from the first of two debates with analysts saying his large lead appeared in tact.
Enrique Pena Nieto, the candidate seeking to return Mexico's former ruling party to the nation's highest office after 12 years, was accused of lying about his record as governor of the state of Mexico and maintaining ties to unsavory elements of his Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
He came under particularly relentless attack from Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the third-place candidate of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.
Lopez Obrador showed pictures of Pena Nieto with disliked political figures from the past PRI administrations, attempting to paint the 45-year-old candidate as a tool for the return of the autocratic and corrupt party that ruled Mexico for seven decades before it was voted out of power.
"Who is Enrique Pena Nieto, really?" Lopez Obrador asked, as he held up photos of Pena Nieto grinning alongside a political mentor accused of stealing public funds, and a former president the leftist described as one of the clique of power-brokers behind the PRI candidate.
Pena Nieto has a reputation for scrupulously preparing but making errors while improvising.
He has been criticized for limiting his public exposure and cancelling appearances at academic forums, part of a strategy of avoiding confrontations with his rivals.
In the rare face-to-face confrontation, Lopez Obrador and the second-place candidate, Josefina Vazquez Mota of the ruling National Action Party, appeared to be hoping to force a damaging gaffe from the man who leads the race by as many as 20 points in most polls.
Mexico's first major female presidential candidate showed the cameras a blown-up cover of an Economist magazine profile of Pena Nieto that she said showed that he had lied about reducing homicide figures during his term as governor of the state of Mexico.
"There are two ways of lying," she said. "One, not telling the truth and the other, making up statistics."
But Pena Nieto avoided any significant error, striking back at his rivals with responses that grew increasingly aggressive and heated as he described cases of corruption among Lopez Obrador's aides as Mexico City mayor, and accused Vazquez Mota of absenteeism as a federal legislator.
"They seem to have come to an agreement," he said of his two main opponents. "They're coming with knives sharpened."
'No knockout blow'
Al Jazeera’s Franc Contreras, reporting from Mexico City, said the debate was full of "political sparring from all four of the main contenders, but no clear knockout blow".
"That means it’s very likely that Enirque Pena Nieto ... will remain the clear frontrunner," he said.
"Many people thought he was going to slip up," said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Centre for Economic Studies.
"His performance, without being spectacular, was sufficiently better than expected, and he can come away without such bad marks."
With questions agreed-upon beforehand, Pena Nieto stuck to his themes of change and competence, and parried Vazquez Mota's critiques as based upon incorrect information, a frequent refrain from his team in the first month of the campaign.
Pena Nieto opened the debate by describing Mexico's economic performance as the worst in 80 years, saying "there aren't enough jobs, and the ones that exist don't pay well".
Vazquez Mota went on the attack against the former governor's record minutes into the campaign, saying the state of Mexico had one of the country's worst economic records under his administration.
"It doesn't cease to surprise me that he talks about objectives that he was never able to achieve in the state of Mexico," she said.
She emphasized her role as the only woman in the race, and sought to de-emphasize her ties to the party that has governed for the last 12 years.
"I want to be president because I have the sensitivity, as a woman, to listen," she said. "I'm a different candidate ... different because I don't belong to powerful, privileged groups, because I'm honest."
Another presidential debate is scheduled for June 10.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies