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.
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"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.
When Calderon won the 2006 election, keeping the PAN in power, he named Vazquez Mota to oversee the education portfolio. But the two never grew close, and he is believed to have favored someone else as the party's 2012 nominee.
"It is no secret that she wasn't Calderon's candidate, and I believe that tensions have grown more acute recently because of this. The conflict now is over who controls the party," said Soledad Loaeza, a political scientist at the College of Mexico, a prestigious institute of social sciences.
Polls now show Vazquez Mota trailing Pena Nieto by up to 17 percentage points but significantly ahead of the third-place candidate, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist former mayor of Mexico City.
"The race is probably going to be closer than people think," Benton said. "A lot of Pena Nieto's support is pretty weak in terms of intensity."
Some political analysts say Vazquez Mota — who is widely known by her first name — has emerged partly on the novelty of her gender but has not articulated a commanding policy vision.
"It is difficult to imagine Josefina giving orders to the army, not because she is a woman but because of the image she projects of a woman who can't take a smile off her face," said Maria de las Heras, head of the Demotecnia polling firm.
In a meeting with a small group of foreign reporters, Vazquez Mota spoke mostly not for attribution, letting the subject veer from powerful commercial monopolies to ways to tweak the country's law enforcement strategy to make citizens feel less vulnerable.
When speaking for the record, she delved deeply into a question about weaknesses in the nation's federalist system, using up all remaining time.
In her two Cabinet posts, Vazquez Mota showed that she "is a serious and responsible functionary," Loaeza said, with "an enormous virtue" of finding experts outside the party to advise her.
When the campaign formally begins in a little more than a week, scrutiny will intensify on Vazquez Mota, and Loaeza said that women initially drawn to her might find her positions less appealing as they become known.
"Many people think that because she is a female politician that she will be progressive. But in reality, in terms of social values, she is extraordinarily conservative," Loaeza said.
Before campaigning formally begins, Vazquez Mota is trotting the hemisphere, seeking support among Mexican migrants in the United States and traveling to Argentina and Peru, where she won support this week from Nobel laureate writer Mario Vargas Llosa.
"We need Josefina Vazquez to become president of Mexico so that democracy continues and this struggle against violence, corruption and drug trafficking that President Calderon has undertaken with such courage doesn't waiver," he said.
Vazquez Mota now has three months of campaigning to convince Mexico's 77 million eligible voters that the Peruvian writer is correct.
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