MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - If Enrique Pena Nieto becomes the first member of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to win a Mexican presidential vote in 18 years this July, he will represent a new start for the centrist faction in more ways than one.
For more than two years, the telegenic Pena Nieto, 45, has led opinion polls to succeed conservative President Felipe Calderon when his term ends on November 30.
Boasting a double-digit lead over rivals, Pena Nieto carries the hopes of a party that dominated Mexico for most of the last century until it was ousted in 2000 by Vicente Fox, a member of the National Action Party (PAN) like Calderon.
Though Pena Nieto has a long history with the PRI political machine, the party has sold him as fresh face to the millions of young voters with little memory of its long rule. The last PRI candidate to be elected president was Ernesto Zedillo in 1994.
A relative unknown in 2005 when he captured the governor’s office of the State of Mexico - the country’s most populous state - Pena Nieto would be the first PRI president never to have held a ministerial post at the national level.
He would also be the first in years to publicly embrace Roman Catholicism in a party whose founder was openly hostile toward the faith and waged war on the Church.
Pena Nieto has suffered less from the taint of corruption than previous governors in the PRI, whose stewardship of Mexico was marred by allegations of vote-rigging and authoritarianism.
He has made an effort to be more transparent, and built his image on public works and cooperation with the neighboring Mexico City government to improve infrastructure.
The bedrock of his administration in the State of Mexico were the campaign “pledges” he drew up and had witnessed by notaries, before checking them off during his six-year term.
Within minutes of the presidential campaign’s start, Pena Nieto signed more pledges, promising to make public officials declare their assets and slash the number of federal deputies by one-fifth to 400.
“I’m going to wage a campaign of pledges,” Pena Nieto told supporters on March 31. “I’m going to pledge myself to the whole of Mexico for all the great things that this country needs.”
He has also promised to put an end to the drug-related violence that has overshadowed Calderon’s administration, claiming more than 50,000 lives in five years.
Frequently ranked among Mexico’s most handsome politicians, Pena Nieto has been mocked for his lack of intellect, especially after he struggled to name correctly a single book that had influenced him at a book fair in December.
He also drew fire from women in Mexico for a dismissive remark about housewives when he was forced to admit he did not know the cost of tortillas, a Mexican staple.
But neither that, nor his admission he had cheated on his first wife and fathered two children out of wedlock, has significantly dented his commanding poll lead.
Aides paint the picture of a decisive pragmatist focused on getting results with a knack for absorbing advice.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and ex-Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are among the modern political leaders Pena Nieto admires, they say.
Married to a glamorous Mexican soap opera star, Pena Nieto has an extended family that includes several former state governors and mayors in central Mexico. The politicians from the area have long been influential in the PRI.
Pena Nieto, who holds a law degree, has been in politics for most of his working life. The sudden death of his first wife in 2007 stirred rumors of suicide or foul play, but Pena Nieto weathered the storm and consolidated his power base.
Pena Nieto’s image has been carefully cultivated by the party, and he has enjoyed a productive relationship with Mexico’s dominant broadcaster, Televisa.
He also prefers to keep his speeches short and snappy, unlike the long technical PRI sermons of old.
Critics say Pena Nieto has not been tested against rivals and has so far ignored challenges to engage in public debates.
Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Stacey Joyce