Hands reach inside the Suburban, eager to touch Fox, even though the bodyguards are quickly cranking up the windows. In the backseat, Fox's sleek and bronzed daughter, Ana Cristina, 20, looks scared that the windows might burst under the hammering from Fox's aficionados. "My father," she says with as much worry as pride, "is a phenomenon." By now, Fox is busy flashing the V sign to passing cars, while at the same time combing confetti out of his brown hair and swigging orange Gatorade. Something has to give, and it's the Gatorade, which Fox sloshes all over his lap. He resigns himself to the wet mess and goes back to showing the V to a line of people waiting in the rain for a bus, as if his political life depends on every minute, every vote. And it does.
Fox, 57, is indeed a phenomenon. A former Coca-Cola executive, he has brought to Mexican politics a new, effervescent tonic--change. Everywhere Fox travels, he's greeted with the same shrieking enthusiasm, the same glowing faces and the same optimism. He is a masterly campaigner. Can he win? One of the benefits of the 71-year reign of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (P.R.I.) is that it controls the levers of Mexico's political machine, which makes Fox something of an outside chance. But even if he doesn't beat out the P.R.I.'s candidate--the decidedly less macho Francisco Labastida Ochoa--this Sunday, Fox has certainly changed Mexican politics.
Fox is waging a struggle that is driven by personality and powerful emotions. He promises an educational revolution for Mexico's long-impoverished campesinos, better health care for the country's poor and a stable economy for its businessmen. Mostly, though, he promises change. As he streaks across the country in a Learjet, barnstorming at three or four rallies a day, he calls on his audiences for a "peaceful insurgency." Says Fox: "President Kennedy called on all Americans to work in putting a man on the moon. That was quite a challenge. But getting the P.R.I. out of Los Pinos [the Mexican White House] is an even bigger challenge."
It's not made any easier by the fact that Fox can be tough to pin down on policy. Throughout the campaign, Labastida has torn into Fox for inconsistencies, branding him "incoherent" and "a liar." (Fox, true to macho form, shot back by calling Labastida a skirt wearer.) Fox, for instance, initially supported privatizing Mexico's oil company but later backflipped. He also learned not to flaunt his ultra-Catholicism; at rallies he no longer flies a banner with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. While those kinds of reversals infuriate his opponents--signs, they insist, of his immaturity--they are an expression of Fox's marketing bias. "Like selling Coke," Fox says, "politics is a retail business." If his ideas aren't selling, he'll change 'em. Labastida has tried to fight the campaign on issues, but Fox won't play that game. He knows his biggest strength is romance, not issues.
Fox grew up in rural Guanajuato, in love with ranch life. His mother--who cooks Fox lunch every Monday--recalls a boy who was energetic, smart and stubborn. Vicente was the kind of boy who would challenge his friends to see who could withstand the most beestings--and win. Fox had dreams of becoming a bullfighter, but his parents steered him toward a business education. He joined Coca-Cola in 1964, pushing soda as a salesman on Mexico's dusty back roads. Over the next 15 years, he rose to become CEO for Mexico and the Caribbean.
The corporate success, however, masked wildness. At 30, he became engaged to Lillian de la Concha, 21. The night before their marriage, Fox serenaded her. The songs, she recalls, were "mostly corridos--not so romantic--and he kept shouting, 'Bring me an Alka Seltzer!' And my father told me, 'Don't you dare go out--that savage will kidnap you!'" He and his wife--they are divorced--adopted four children.
Fox eventually returned to his family ranch. In 1995 he became Governor of Guanajuato and perfected his hands-on style. During four years as Governor, he brags, he spent four days in the office. The rest of the time he was with the state's cops, teachers and farmers, practicing retail politics.