MEXICO CITY — In a society that clings to macho ways, Mexican voters find themselves for the first time mulling a field of presidential candidates that includes a woman.
She is Josefina Vazquez Mota, a 51-year-old economist who seeks to keep the ruling National Action Party (PAN) in the presidency for a third consecutive term.
Opinion polls show Vazquez Mota lagging in second place in the July 1 elections, weighed down by citizen fatigue with violence that has surged under President Felipe Calderon and with the lackluster economic performance under his rule.
Yet even as her gender has elevated her in the public eye, Vazquez Mota's icy relations with Calderon have allowed her credibly to distinguish herself from the incumbent and make a serious run.
"Though a member of his government, she wasn't in the inner circle of his team," said Allyson Benton, a political scientist at the Center for Research and Teaching in Economics, a Mexico City academic research center.
Vazquez Mota hopes to join other female politicians who've shattered glass ceilings around the hemisphere. They include the current presidents of Brazil, Argentina and Costa Rica. Three other Latin nations — Chile, Nicaragua and Panama — also have had women presidents serve full terms in the not very distant past.
Vasquez Mota, however, has carved a path different from the ones that led some of the other female leaders in the region to the top. If Vasquez Mota wins, she will not have arrived on the coattails of a husband or a mentor, nor will she have served as an interim figure among deadlocked political forces. Her political identity was carved in the trenches of the Mexican government and Congress.
She's also a social conservative, hewing to an anti-abortion platform. Earlier this month, she urged followers to attend Mass before casting votes in a primary that she won.
Her suggestion that she would tend to Mexico much as she watches over her own family drew criticism even among erstwhile party members.
"Mexico doesn't need a mother," said Manuel Clouthier, a renegade PAN legislator who recently quit the party to pursue a quixotic independent bid for the presidency. "Much less are we looking for a reincarnation of the Virgin Mary to protect us as she says she protects her own children."
In fact, Vazquez Mota's three daughters don't need much protecting. The oldest, 25-year-old Maria Jose Ocampo, fiercely defends her mother, assailing the leading candidate, Enrique Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), for his gaffe in December when he attended a major book fair and could not name any book correctly that had made an impact on his life — other than the Bible.
"In my house, we have a big library. My parents have always read a lot and we have, too," Ocampo said at a news conference in January.
Vazquez Mota was only 14 years old when she met her future husband, who was then 15. They waited nearly a decade before their parents allowed them to wed.
A graduate of the Jesuit-run Ibero-American University in Mexico City, Vazquez Mota supported Vicente Fox, the former Coca-Cola executive who broke the 71-year PRI stranglehold on power to win the presidency in the historic 2000 election. She first served a term in Congress, and then took over a Cabinet post on social development under Fox.