The front-runner in the upcoming presidential race in Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, hopes to emulate the great 19th century Zapotec political leader, Benito Juárez, rather than other Latin American leftists.

According to a Reuters story carried on Monday in the Washington Post and numerous other news outlets, although López Obrador represents a leftist party, he does not compare himself to the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Brazil, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, and Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.

Instead, he says, he admires Mexican heroes in their fight for independence from Spain plus other historic leaders of his country such as Francisco “Pancho” Villa and Emiliano Zapata. But he emphasizes that he most admires Benito Juárez, the leader of Mexico in the 1860s and the hero in the fight against the French invaders. The birthday of Juárez, who is one of his nation’s most revered historic figures, is celebrated on March 21 as a national holiday (see our news story last March 18).

The writer for Reuters speculates that López Obrador’s admiration for Juárez may shed clues to his own style of governing should he be elected president. He told about 100,000 people at a campaign rally in Mexico City on Sunday, “we are inspired by Benito Juárez’s sobriety, austerity and the firmness of his republican principles.”

According to a news story in López Obrador’s own website about the massive rally, the candidate promises “to establish a relationship of respect and collaboration between the federal and the Mexico City governments.” One might suspect, from the comment, that Juárez’s famous maxim “respect for the rights of others is peace” may have rubbed off on the current front-runner for the Mexican presidency.

The task that Juárez faced 150 years ago in his struggles against the French invaders and the crushing power of the landed classes and the Catholic Church may be compared with Mexico’s current problems, such as continuing poverty and drug violence. López Obrador faces grave challenges, much as Juárez did. The Reuters dispatch quotes historian Lorenzo Meyer as saying, “What is it that Andrés Manuel sees in Juárez? He sees a political leader with a task that is almost impossible.”

López Obrador’s unwillingness to identify with current leftist leaders in Latin America may also stem from an astute hesitation to antagonize, at least at this point, the United States. Reuters indicates that American policy-makers are nervous to find out what he will do if he does win the election.

The quotes from the candidate on Sunday are encouraging. “It is not just about putting the presidential sash on and sitting in the presidential seat. It’s about a real renovation, a true purification of public life,” he said. If he is elected on July 2, as Juárez was 145 years ago, he will have plenty of opportunities to prove his ideals in practice.