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MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Former Mexican President Vicente Fox always delighted in his image as an honest rancher but his reputation is sagging amid a corruption probe and fierce media scrutiny of his flashy cars and lavish lifestyle.
A charismatic figure who electrified Mexico by ending 71 years of corrupt one-party rule at elections in 2000, Fox is now being investigated by a congressional commission after he opened up his renovated ranch in central Mexico to a glossy society magazine.
The San Cristobal ranch, where paint once peeled from the walls, now boasts expensive furniture, remodeled rooms, a swimming pool and immaculately kept grounds with peacocks and deer.
Fox, who left office last December, also came under fire after a newspaper reported that a businessman gave his wife a decked-out Jeep Wrangler as a gift early in his term.
Several newspapers later reported that Fox was driving an expensive Hummer vehicle not registered under his name and which had been "lent" for free by a car firm to the presidential guard.
In a well-publicized humiliation, Fox was last week forced to hand it back after President Felipe Calderon, his successor and former energy minister, ordered an end to such loan deals.
Fox firmly denies any wrongdoing but the revelations have caused a furor in a country where half the population lives on $2 a day or less and tarnished the reputation of a man who promised in 2000 to end the corruption that flowered during 71 years of rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
Protesters pulled down a statue of the former leader this month in the tropical state of Veracruz.
"He made his name fighting against the corruption of the PRI. This situation is a terrible irony in the final analysis of his government," said political analyst Jorge Zepeda.
The scandal comes as Fox, a former Coca-Cola executive, tries to carve out a role as an elder statesman, touring the United States to promote his biography "Revolution of Hope" and by setting up his "Centro Fox" think-tank.
Fox, who was not involved in any financial scandals as president, is adamant the accusations are an attempt to discredit him. "They won't find out anything. Let them investigate, let them fool about!" he recently told CNN.
His frustration hurt him when he insulted a reporter and stormed out of an interview on a Spanish-language network when asked about the charges.
Mexicans generally like the former president despite his failure to deliver on promises of rapid economic growth during his six-year term, but some say he is paying the price for staying in the limelight too long.
"The question now is what to do with Fox? He complicates things for everybody, including himself," wrote Federico Berrueto in daily newspaper Milenio.
One beneficiary of the scandal may be Calderon, who has seen Fox's standing fall within their ruling National Action Party, giving the low profile president a better chance of getting his ally elected in a party leadership vote next month.
Writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Jason Lange and Kieran Murray; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org; 52 81 8345 7553