Reuters International

Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Eugene, Oregon, U.S. on May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/Files

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By Gabriel Stargardter

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico has rebuffed an approach from a U.S. lobbying group seeking a government endorsement for its efforts to counter Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, according to a Mexican official involved in the talks.

The American Mexico Public Affairs Committee (AMxPAC), a tax-exempt "social welfare" group recently set up by Mexican-American business figures, did not ask for money but was simply testing the waters to gauge whether the government would be interested in giving it some form of support, the official said.

Keen to avoid being perceived as interfering in the domestic politics of its northern neighbour, the Mexican government rebuffed the approach, the official said.

"It would be awful if we joined them and Trump won," said the official, who was not authorized to speak publicly. "The political cost would be huge."

Trump, who is all but certain to be the Republican Party presidential nominee for the Nov. 8 U.S. election, has upset many in his own party and south of the border with insulting comments about Mexican immigrants and pledges to build a wall along the Mexican frontier to keep out illegal immigrants.

Trump argues that Mexico is "killing" the United States with cheap labour and says the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has been a disaster.

The AMxPAC president, Antonio Maldonado, said Trump's rise was a factor in the March 18 creation of the group, which is organised under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code and is modelled on the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but added that it was not solely focused on providing a counter-narrative to Trump's rhetoric.

"This idea of having a lobby to strengthen the U.S.-Mexico relationship is something that is much bigger than Trump's candidacy," said Maldonado, a San Diego-based lawyer.

Nonetheless, Maldonado acknowledged that AMxPAC board member Eduardo Bravo had approached the Mexican government.

"There was a conversation," he said. "But only to explain that we didn't want to hinder what they were doing, and also, we didn't want them to hinder what we were doing."

Mexico has responded to concerns over Trump's remarks and worry that his comments reflect wider ill-feeling towards it in the United States by sending in a respected diplomat, Carlos Sada, as its new ambassador in Washington, charged with boosting the country's image. Maldonado said the government had also hired U.S. public relations firm Burson-Marsteller.

The official said the government is also focused on helping eligible Mexicans in the United States become citizens, and other "soft power" strategies. For example, Mexico may lean on the national football team to help it reach the U.S. Mexican diaspora.

It is illegal for foreign governments, corporations or individuals to spend funds in connection with U.S. federal, state or local elections.

The 501(c)(4) groups do not have to disclose the identities of their donors as long as they spend less than half their time and money on political activities, providing a potential illegal workaround for foreign nationals hoping to donate to political causes.

Maldonado said the AMxPAC was predominantly formed as a 501(c)(4) for tax purposes, not to allow donors anonymity.

(Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Frances Kerry)

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