By ADRIANA GOMEZ LICON, Associated Press
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexico's ruling party on Sunday chose a former congresswoman to run for president, the first time a major party has nominated a woman to compete for the nation's top office.
The National Action Party's vote for Josefina Vazquez Mota over two other candidates sets the race for Mexico's July 1 presidential election. The two other major parties had already selected their candidates.
Vazquez Mota, 51, faces an uphill climb against former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto, the front-runner in the current polls who could return Mexico's long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, to power after a 12-year hiatus.
The leftist Democratic Revolution Party chose Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is making his second run after a razor-thin loss in 2006 to President Felipe Calderon. Mexico limits its presidents to a single six-year term.
Vazquez Mota is considered Pena Nieto's strongest potential challenger, a personable, charismatic candidate who like Pena Nieto is good on the stump. Though Mexican voters in general seem weary of the ruling party after presidents Vicente Fox and Calderon, the novelty of a woman candidate could boost party appeal.
"It injects a certain new note of uncertainty. There's never been a strong female presidential candidate for any other major party before," said Eric Olson, a senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Mexico Institute. "It adds that historical element and maybe some excitement."
Others argue that the party, also known as the PAN, is too battered by a bloody drug war started in 2006, stalled reforms and continuing corruption during 11 years in power.
"Josefina arrives with a weakened party," said Soledad Loaeza, a political science professor in Colegio de Mexico who has studied the evolution of the PAN. "The electorate is not willing to see her as an alternative."
Jose Espina, president of the party's election commission, says Vazquez's 55 percent support in Sunday's primary is an irreversible lead. He said 87 percent of the ballots have been counted.
More than 400,000 people voted in the PAN primaries. Her victory was greatly anticipated in opinion polls.
She was not Calderon's choice to compete for the party, though he appointed her education secretary after she served as his campaign manager in 2006. The party establishment had supported former Finance Secretary Ernesto Cordero. But the party's rank-and-file membership handed her a victory from the polls.
Calderon was not the choice of his predecessor, Vicente Fox, whose election in 2000 booted the PRI out of office after 71 years of single-party rule.
The fact that Calderon still won the party nomination and went on to surprise everyone and defeat Lopez Obrador provides a template for Vazquez Mota to pull an upset, even though she now trails Pena Nieto by nearly 20 points in the polls.
By law, Calderon is prohibited endorsing candidates. But his sister, who recently ran unsuccessfully for the governorship of his home state of Michoacan, backed Cordero.
Cordero obtained 38 votes, and the third candidate Santiago Creel, a former senator who also ran in the 2006 primaries against Calderon, got 6 percent of the votes.
Women have run for president in Mexico before, but not representing any of the three major parties in Mexico.
The PAN's choice of Vazquez Mota may have been the wisest, according to political analysts
"A PRI victory is still the most likely outcome, but it's almost inevitable the race will tighten," said Pamela Starr, a professor at the University of Southern California who writes on Mexican politics. "It will be an interesting campaign, regardless."
Vazquez Mota's party opponents complained she was a weak lawmaker and couldn't push through an educational reform as secretary. She has used her family life on the campaign trail to garner the support of Mexican mothers.
Some say Mexico isn't prepared for a woman president, unlike other Latin American countries, but analysts disagree.
"I don't think Mexico is any less ready for a female president than Chile for example," Starr said. Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Costa Rica are among the nations in Latin America that have recently elected women to their higher posts.
Follow Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/agomezlicon
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.