MEXICO CITY - Oops!
Politicians north of the border aren't the only ones struggling with gaffes this campaign season.
Mexico's leading presidential contender floundered in confusion for about four minutes when the audience at a book fair asked him to name three books that had influenced him. He was able to correctly name only one he has read "parts of:" the Bible.
Former Mexico State Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto holds a comfortable lead in opinion polls for Mexico's July 1 presidential election, but his appearance was reminiscent of the campaign-denting moment that Texas Gov. Rick Perry suffered at a Republican debate in November. The GOP hopeful said he couldn't remember one of the three government agencies he pledged to eliminate if he were president. "Oops!" he finally admitted.
The floundering by Pena Nieto, a strikingly handsome man married to a television actress, fed into the images critics have tried to spin around him: telegenic but hollow.
"I have read a number of books, starting with novels, that I particularly liked. I'd have a hard time recalling the titles of the books," Pena Nieto said during a question-and-answer session at the weekend book fair in the western city of Guadalajara.
Pena Nieto said that as an adolescent, he had been influenced by the Bible, and had read "parts of" it.
He then rambled, tossing out confused title names, asking for help in recalling authors and sometimes mismatching the two.
He said he liked "La Silla del Aguila, a novel whose title roughly translates as "The Presidential Chair." But he said it was written by historian Enrique Krauze, one of Mexico's most famous historians. It was actually written by Carlos Fuentes, the country's most famous novelist.
That was about as close as the former governor came to correctly identifying a book he has read in the last decade.
"The truth is that when I read books, the titles don't really sink in," he said after several minutes.
Pena Nieto is the leading hope of the former ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to return to the presidency it held for 71 years without interruption before losing the 2000 elections to conservative Vicente Fox.
Television images of Pena Nieto's struggles ignited glee among PRI critics on Twitter.
Several referred to him as "the Justin Bieber of the PRI," referring to Bieber's difficulty in naming all seven continents during a television appearance in November.
But Bieber was at least able to work out the answer with some prompting from host David Letterman.
Pena Nieto couldn't. He looked to his aides for help and drew laughter from the audience, saying at least twice "I can't remember the title." He mentioned he had read a political thriller by Jeffrey Archer.
Several demonstrators showed up at party headquarters in Mexico City on Monday to symbolically give him books on Mexican history.
"It's really very shameful that a person wants to be president and doesn't know a single book," said Hugo Giovanni Aguirre, a university law student.
Pena Nieto accepted the gaffe in Twitter posts Monday, apparently hoping that good grace would calm the controversy.
"I'm reading some tweets about my error yesterday, some are very critical, others are even funny. I thank you for all of them," he wrote. Later, he tweeted "Freedom of expression is a central pillar of democracy. Criticism of those of us who aspire to or hold political office is fundamental."
But efforts to smooth over the issue were not helped when Pena Nieto's teenage daughter Paulina re-tweeted a comment that described people gloating over the gaffe as "the bunch of idiots who form part of the proletariat and only criticize those they envy."
Pena Nieto quickly apologized on his own Twitter account for the message, which stings in a country with deep social and economic inequality.
"Paulina's re-tweet was an emotional reaction to my error," Pena Nieto wrote. "It was definitely excessive and I publicly apologize for it." He later added "I have had a talk with my children about respect and tolerance."
Mexican intellectuals were aghast, though some took into account Pena Nieto's explanation that he had been too busy in politics to have time to read.
"I myself, and I suppose all of us . . . have moments when we forget authors, we forget books," historian Lorenzo Meyer told a local radio station. "We can't jump on Pena Nieto because he forgets his writers. But I believe that a deep knowledge of Mexican history is fundamental for someone who wants to be president."