MEXICO CITY Voters from Mexico's ruling conservative party selected their first woman presidential candidate on Sunday, choosing a former education minister to battle the opposition's nominee, who has a big lead in the polls.
National Action Party (PAN) voters threw their support behind former party congressional leader Josefina Vazquez Mota, pushing aside Ernesto Cordero, a close ally of President Felipe Calderon.
Jose Espina, who organized the vote, announced Vazquez Mota was ahead with 55 percent support with around 87 percent of the votes counted, more than enough to secure the party nomination. Cordero came in second with 38 percent.
National polls show Vasquez Mota is the PAN's best chance against Enrique Pena Nieto from Mexico's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the last century, but she trails him by 20 percentage points.
"Today we end a primary and start a new journey, a journey to defeat the real adversary of Mexico, who represents authoritarianism and the worst anti-democratic practices, who represents the return to a corrupt system," Vazquez Mota said before a cheering crowd of supporters at her victory party.
"This adversary is Pena Nieto and his party," she said, flanked by her primary opponents, who pledged their support.
The PAN is the last party to pick its candidate before the July 1 presidential election. The PRI dispensed with a primary and left-wing parties chose Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is third in polls even though he nearly won the 2006 presidential contest.
Vazquez Mota's victory over Cordero is an upset for the party bosses who often have the final say in choosing candidates.
Former interior minister Santiago Creel, who was third in the primary race with 6 percent, lost in the 2006 primary after Calderon rallied the party machine in his favor.
Calderon's supporters threw their weight behind Cordero to drum up votes for him.
But Vazquez Mota, who would be Mexico's first female president if she wins, gained steam with the backing of lawmakers she led through Congress. Rising popular support made her the favorite for grassroots party supporters.
"I voted for Josefina. Men have made a lot of mistakes in government, so let's see what the women can do," said retiree Joaquin Cervantes, casting his vote at a polling station.
Vazquez Mota, 51, said on Friday at one of her last campaign rallies that she would not back down from Calderon's fight against drug cartels if elected.
"I want to tell you, I am not afraid!" she told a cheering crowd of thousands of supporters in the central state of Tlaxcala. "Courage has nothing to do with gender."
While there is growing disenchantment with the rising death toll from Calderon's war on drugs, with more than 47,000 people killed in the last five years, 83 percent of Mexicans still support using the army to combat traffickers, according to a 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey.
The PRI accuses Calderon of using his prosecutors to smear the party with links to drug traffickers. Last week, reports surfaced of a probe of three former governors on money laundering charges, feeding popular ire.
(Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez, writing by Michael O'Boyle; Editing by Stacey Joyce and Christopher Wilson)