By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - When Xochitl Galvez lumbered onto the floor of Mexico's Senate last December dressed in an inflatable green dinosaur suit to protest a ruling party bill, even the flustered leader of the upper house trying to rebuke her could not suppress a smile.
The stunt by Galvez, who crashed the rostrum holding a card reading "Jurassic Plan" to criticize legislation from the ruling leftist National Regeneration Movement (MORENA) as retrograde, is one of many that made her famous before she won the 2024 presidential candidacy of the main opposition alliance this week.
Her snubs to convention, gift for political theater and ability to connect with voters are traits that echo President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, an anti-establishment veteran who was finally elected in 2018. Now he is trying to thwart her bid.
"They're similar in how they talk, their informality, their irreverence, their connection with poorer Mexicans," said Francisco Abundis, head of polling firm Parametria.
"She has a lighter touch than the president, and that may even be an advantage for the campaign."
The business-friendly Galvez seized the candidacy of the opposition Broad Front for Mexico after the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), Mexico's longtime rulers, dropped its own contender to back her in the June 2, 2024 election.
MORENA is due to announce its candidate on Sept. 6 after national polling, with voter surveys suggesting the likely winner will be former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum.
The ruling party's commanding lead in polls has been forged around the personal popularity of Lopez Obrador, who under Mexican law can only serve a single six-year term.
The 69-year-old president regularly pillories the opposition at his daily press conferences, and his would-be MORENA successors have all pledged to continue his political legacy, giving him enormous weight in the campaign.
Galvez, 60, has long poked fun at the party's dependence on Lopez Obrador, posting a video during the 2018 general election campaign in which she dressed as him and mocked his ubiquity in MORENA candidates' promotional photos.
"I don't need a godfather," she quipped. "I can get ahead by myself."
Irrepressibly upbeat and a keen bicycle rider, Galvez has described her political roots as Marxist, though she sits in Congress for the center-right National Action Party (PAN) and had a career in business before entering politics.
Both she and Lopez Obrador worked to improve the lives of indigenous communities; she led a national commission for indigenous people under former President Vicente Fox, while he headed the Tabasco state indigenous affairs bureau in the 1970s.
Lopez Obrador has governed as a defender of the poor, upping welfare spending and denouncing corruption and corporate greed as hallmarks of a privileged elite he dubs "fifi."
Galvez, who has pledged to uphold his welfare programs, has framed her life story as one of triumph over adversity, in which she grew up in an impoverished family with indigenous roots to become a successful businesswoman.
Lopez Obrador this year called Galvez "tenacious" during a headline-grabbing bid by her to get into his morning news conference. After she announced her presidential run, he began lambasting her, branding Galvez an "employee of the oligarchy."
She dismisses such barbs. She told Reuters earlier this year: "They can't call me fifi," pointing to her origins.
Galvez's tale of self-made success stands in stark contrast to the president's paternalistic model, said Ernesto Ruffo, a PAN stalwart working on her presidential campaign.
"This is why Lopez Obrador is really worried," said Ruffo, whose 1989 gubernatorial victory over the PRI in Baja California heralded the beginning of the end of one-party rule in Mexico.
Galvez faces a steep challenge in ending MORENA rule, with some polls giving the ruling party far more support than all opposition groups combined. One major opposition party, Citizens' Movement, remains outside the alliance.
Moreover, the process of anointing Galvez has looked chaotic, Parametria's Abundis said. Many PRI loyalists were stunned by the way in which the party dumped its own contender.
To mount a real challenge, Galvez will need to be disciplined and ensure she does not overplay her hand, he said.
"Being laid-back and irreverent is a very fine line to walk," Abundis said. "Because people also like you to be serious and have gravitas, and not to trivialize politics."
(This story has been refiled to fix a typographical error in paragraph 2)
(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Paul Simao)