MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's ruling conservatives took a bold step by becoming the first major party to nominate a woman presidential candidate, but Josefina Vazquez Mota is struggling to close a big gap with the front-runner, hamstrung by internal party divisions.
Three weeks into a compressed campaign season before the July 1 vote, Vazquez Mota trails Enrique Pena Nieto from the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, by double digits in most opinion polls.
Vazquez Mota's National Action Party, or PAN, is placing its hopes in the petite 51-year-old politician, who served as President Felipe Calderon's education minister before becoming the party's leader in the lower house of congress.
She won popular support from grassroots voters to beat out the president's perceived favorite - former finance minister Ernesto Cordero - in a February primary vote, and is trying to overcome infighting to unify the party behind her.
But her campaign got off to a shaky start, and she is far behind the youthful former governor Pena Nieto, who hopes to seize back power for the PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades before being ousted by the PAN in 2000.
She overhauled her team just days into official campaigning, producing slick television spots, including one attack ad going after Pena Nieto's record as governor. In one ad she declares: "I will be a president in a skirt, but I will wear the pants."
But the gamble has yet to pay off. One poll published on April 19 even had her slipping back into third place, behind the 2006 runner-up, leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
As a federal deputy, Vazquez Mota vigorously backed Calderon's reforms, but her efforts to shepherd them through congress frequently foundered due to opposition from the PRI.
As president, she would likely face similar challenges pushing through more ambitious policies such as trying to list Pemex, the nationalized oil monopoly, on the stock exchange.
Her loyalty to the government could be a liability due to public discontent over the drug-related violence that has claimed more than 50,000 lives since Calderon deployed the army to crush drug cartels after taking office at the end of 2006.
With her campaign slogan "Josefina is different," she is seeking to carefully distance herself from the government's less popular policies while still drawing support from Calderon's inner circle.
At one campaign rally before she became PAN candidate, some questioned her ability as a woman to carry on Calderon's battle against the brutal cartels, known for torture, massacres and decapitations. She insists she is up to the challenge.
"I will not negotiate with organized crime," she said at a recent event, in a veiled reference to a widely held belief that PRI politicians in the past had cut deals with criminals to keep the peace.
Supporters often hear about her proud role as mother of three daughters and wife in a 27-year-long marriage.
To woo female voters, she has promoted the cause of women's health and education. Her proposals include lengthening Mexico's short school day so mothers have more time to work.
Many of Vazquez Mota's views on women can be found in a 1999 self-help book she wrote called "My God, Make Me A Widow Please: The Challenge Of Being Yourself."
"Little girls are taught to be dependent, incapable of valuing themselves in many aspects of their daily lives," she wrote, preaching improved self-esteem as a remedy.
In the book, her religious conviction also emerges, as she thanks God for "infinite love" in the introduction. Hoping for votes from the PAN's strong Roman Catholic base, she is opposed to gay marriage and abortion but also to jailing women for terminating pregnancies, a practice in some of Mexico's states.
Reporting by Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Eric Walsh