MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The woman who wants to become Mexico's first female president is solidifying her standing as the grass-roots favorite to represent the country's ruling party in the 2012 election, according to opinion polls on Wednesday.
Lawmaker Josefina Vazquez Mota still has only a slim chance of becoming president given that increasing unrest about drug war violence is hurting support for President Felipe Calderon's National Action Party (PAN).
Security had replaced the economy as voters' top concern even before suspected drug gang hitmen torched a casino in the business hub of Monterrey last week, killing 52 people and shaking the PAN's support in a key stronghold.
Opinion polls show none of the potential PAN candidates could win the 2012 poll if elections were held now, although Vazquez Mota has a better chance than other contenders -- including Finance Minister Ernesto Cordero.
A poll in daily Milenio showed 39.4 percent of voters close to the PAN thought Vazquez Mota should be the party's candidate in 2012, followed by veteran PAN legislator and former presidential candidate Santiago Creel with 30.3 percent.
Cordero, a close confidant of Calderon, was in third place with 11.4 percent.
In the previous month's survey by Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica (GCE), Vazquez Mota, a former education minister and now leader of the PAN in the lower house of Congress, had a lead of seven percentage points over Creel.
If chosen as candidate, Vazquez Mota would not be the first woman to run for Mexico's presidency, but is seen as having better odds than her predecessors as she comes from a major party. No official candidates have been selected by Mexico's three main parties.
A separate poll by Mitofsky showed the main opposition party, the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is ahead in the race to wrest back the office it lost in 2000, with 38.9 percent of voter support compared to 19.2 percent for the PAN.
But not even Vazquez Mota could beat PRI candidates in several match-ups presented in the Mitofsky survey.
A survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project showed 80 percent of Mexicans are worried about crime, with 77 percent naming cartel-related violence as a specific concern. Sixty-nine percent saw the economy in the same light.
Those concerns were exacerbated in northern states battered by the drug war, which has killed more than 42,000 people since late 2006.
Fewer than half of Mexicans said the government was making progress in the fight against drug cartels, with 30 percent saying Calderon is actually losing ground.
A large majority -- 83 percent - supported using the army to fight drug gangs and close to two-thirds surveyed think the United States should be more involved in training of Mexican police and soldiers.
But the majority still shy away from supporting the deployment of U.S. forces inside Mexico, although openness to that idea is growing.
The Pew survey also showed that fewer Mexicans would move to the United States if they had the opportunity and the perception that life across the border is better than in Mexico dropped 13 percent between 2009 and 2011.
The GCE poll canvassed 500 voters and has a margin of error of 2.53 and 5.66 percentage points depending on the division of responses and was conducted on Aug 30. The Pew poll of 800 people was conducted between March 22 and April 7 with a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points. The Mitofsky poll canvassed 1,000 voters on Aug 20-24.
Reporting by Krista Hughes, Mica Rosenberg and Miguel Angel Gutierrez; Editing by Cynthia Osterman