| MEXICO CITY
MEXICO CITY Mexican President Felipe Calderon has said politicians in the main opposition party may consider deals with criminals, opening an inflammatory new front in the nation's presidential election campaign.
Calderon's blunt remarks about the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which is favored to win the July 1, 2012 election, are unusual in a country where the president is expected to stay largely aloof from party politics.
Centering on the policy that has dominated his presidency -- an aggressive army-led crackdown on drug cartels -- his comments risk polarizing opinion on how to restore stability to Mexico, where the drug war has killed 44,000 in five years.
Leading members of Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN), other PRI opponents and political analysts have accused the once-dominant party of making secret deals with drug cartels in the past to keep the peace in Mexico.
In a weekend New York Times interview published a day after he said a state governed by the PRI had been left in the hands of a drug gang, Calderon was asked whether the opposition party might pursue a corrupt relationship with organized crime.
"There are many in the PRI who think the deals of the past would work now. I don't see what deal could be done, but that is the mentality many of them have," said Calderon, whom the law prevents from seeking a second six-year term.
Calderon's office later issued a statement saying the newspaper had expressly noted when posing the question that the PRI had a reputation for making deals with organized crime.
His office underlined that the president recognized many in the PRI did not favor this approach and supported his policy.
Analysts say Calderon is bitterly opposed to the PRI, which dominated Mexico for seven decades until PAN won the presidency in 2000 under its candidate Vicente Fox.
The tide of drug war killings has eroded support for the PAN, and the PRI's main hopeful, the telegenic former governor of the State of Mexico, Enrique Pena Nieto, has around twice the support of his nearest rival.
The PRI has attacked Calderon for the spiraling death toll, and analysts said the president's remarks were tailored for the election, putting in jeopardy any hope of passing many pending reforms that have been stalled in Congress.
"This is really serious," Javier Oliva, a political scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), said of Calderon's comments about the PRI. "The president has an obligation to prove this now. To name names."
"The president is regressing into a negative stance of being president of the PAN, and not president of Mexico."
The Times noted that Calderon "looked disgusted at the mere mention of the PRI" during the interview.
The statement issued by his office said Calderon mentioned the ex-PRI governor of Nuevo Leon state, Socrates Rizzo, as someone who had pointed to the existence of such pacts.
Rizzo's comments, which were reported early this year, were rejected by leading PRI figures at the time.
The PRI's national chairman, Humberto Moreira, told El Universal's Sunday newspaper his party did not want to make deals with organized crime and that Calderon was trying to exploit the issue of public security for political ends.
On Friday, Calderon said the eastern state of Veracruz, which has suffered a surge in killings over the past month, had hidden the bodies of victims and been "left in the hands of the Zetas" drug cartel, one of the most brutal in Mexico.
He did not specify who was to blame.
Governor Javier Duarte told Milenio television that Veracruz, which has been ruled by the PRI since the party's inception, was "not under the control of any criminal group" and that violence was a problem affecting the whole country.
(Editing by Paul Simao and Todd Eastham)