OAXACA, Mexico (AP) – Brass bands blared through the rain as the party that ruled Mexico for 71 years celebrated a claimed victory in a governor’s race that could affect Mexico’s 2006 presidential campaign.

The noisy march in Oaxaca’s colonial plaza was a remarkable show of confidence – or desperation – for the party: it was still trailing early Monday in the official count.

“We have won the government of the state of Oaxaca!” candidate Ulises Ruiz shouted to cheering members of his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, from the shelter of a truck parked in front of the cathedral late Sunday. He said his party’s polls showed a 6 percentage point victory.

Yet at the moment he spoke, Ruiz was still several points behind opposition candidate Gabino Cue in the official count and independent surveys showed a razor-thin race.

Cue, too, claimed he had won. “We will not let them rob us of the victory,” he told supporters, who also chanted and honked horns in celebration.

With 50 percent of the vote officially counted early Monday, Cue still held a razor-thin lead, 46.7 percent to 46 percent.

The Television Azteca network said its own quick count of representative precincts showed a virtual tie: 49-48 in favor of Ruiz, with a 2 percentage point margin of error.

On hand but saying little was national PRI leader Roberto Madrazo, whose presidential hopes would be dented if Ruiz, a key ally, loses in Oaxaca, a state that has been important to Madrazo’s political rise.

Beyond politics, the celebration fascinated tourists sipping coffees beside the colonial city center.

“The Mexicans are so passionate about the election,” said 26-year-old Veronika Grigkar of Vienna, Austria. “In Europe, I’ve never experienced such a big parade in the street” after an election.

Along the U.S. border, exit polls for the Tijuana mayor’s race showed a virtual tie between flamboyant gambling baron Jorge Hank Rhon of the PRI and Jorge Ramos of President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party.

Even if Hank loses, his strong showing was a shock to Fox’s party, which has governed Tijuana and the rest of Baja California state for 15 years.

It was the first state since 1929 to elect a non-PRI governor, preparing the way for Fox’s historic presidential victory in 2000.

In Oaxaca, Ruiz oversaw Madrazo’s 2002 campaign for the PRI party leadership, delivering a landslide that pushed the former Tabasco state governor to victory.

Oaxaca also is important because the party has lost several other states in southern Mexico, which has long been considered the center of strength both for the PRI and for Madrazo personally.

PRI domination here has been so strong that the leftist Democratic Revolution Party put aside its fierce opposition to the conservative National Action elsewhere in Mexico in order to form a coalition behind Cue.

They were joined, obviously but not quite openly, by several anti-Madrazo figures in the PRI who hoped to undermine the party chief. If they lose, that gamble could damage their standing in the party.

In Tijuana, Hank Rhon is the son of the late PRI power broker Carlos Hank Gonzalez, who became a rich businessmen during decades as a public servant.

Hank Rhon, one of his sons, is worth a reported $500 million. He owns a racetrack, a chain of bookmaking parlors and a zoo.

In 1988, two of his employees were convicted of killing a Tijuana journalist who had reported on corruption for the crusading weekly Zeta.

National Action’s Luis Armando Reynoso Femat easily defeated the PRI’s Oscar Lopez Velarde in the day’s only other governor’s race, holding the state of Aguascalientes for Fox’s party.

AP-ES-08-02-04 0153EDT

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