Dozens of women in form-fitting skirts and brightly coloured blouses climb onto chairs, teetering in their platform sandals. They hold iPads up over the heads of the crowd, so as not to miss the arrival of the man widely expected to be Mexico's next president. Others jostle for front-row spots in the convention centre in this southern oil city in Campeche state, desperate for a chance to see – and, with luck, touch – Enrique Pena Nieto.
With a lead in the polls of as much as 10 per cent, the candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is favoured to win July 1, and oust the ruling National Action Party (PAN).
Matinee-idol gorgeous, with slicked back hair, Mr. Pena Nieto, 45, does not disappoint. Just five-foot-six, he moves with athletic authority, kissing housewives, embracing men, signing autographs. The women squeeze forward for a chance to pose cheek-to-cheek.
It feels less like day 46 on the campaign trail and more like the arrival of a telenovela star. (It helps that Mexico's Prince Charming really is married to a glamorous actress.)
A relative unknown when he became governor of Mexico State in 2005, Mr. Pena Nieto captured voters' attention early on. Barring an unexpected upset, he will lead the world's 13th-largest economy and Canada's third-largest trading partner, taking office at a crucial time, as the country of 120 million struggles to contain a violent drug war in the north that has claimed 50,000 lives.
No matter that the PRI, one of the world's longest-running political parties, has long been associated with nepotism, graft and economic mismanagement – not to mention quietly making deals with the drug cartels. (It was finally voted out of office in 2000, after 71 years in power.)
No matter that many critics dismiss Mr. Pena Nieto as a womanizing lightweight – one analyst even calling him a "political hologram" – or that he is backed by some of the PRI's most notorious dinosaurs, including ex-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Aside from early campaign gaffes, including one excruciating interview during which he stammered for four minutes trying to name the three books that most influenced him, as well as a growing student protest that began in Mexico City last month, Mr. Pena Nieto remains the front-runner. A charismatic speaker, he has run a professional, well-organized campaign – ably assisted by sophisticated advisers and a massive advertising campaign on the Televisa and TV Azteca media conglomerates.
To charges that the PRI is still corrupt and oppressive, Mr. Pena Nieto claims that the party has transformed itself and is best positioned to tackle public security, improve economic growth beyond 2 per cent and finish the task of modernizing the country's institutions.
"The PRI has the political strength and the social backing to bring about the structural reforms the country needs," he tells The Globe and Mail in an interview. "The right has already shown it is not capable of doing it, and the left has pronounced that it doesn't want to do it."
It is difficult to predict what another PRI government would actually look like. Much has changed in the past 12 years. Presidents no longer wield as much authority, as President Felipe Calderon has discovered, with Congress blocking many of his reforms. There is more freedom of the press and a more sophisticated electorate. Many young, urban voters are fully engaged in social media. "Mr. Pena Nieto is promising reforms but will he be able to deliver or is he beholden to different party interests?" wonders Carlos Heredia, an academic and political analyst.
Supporters of Mr. Pena Nieto say they are impressed with his record of accountability. As governor of Mexico State, he publicly signed and carried out 608 compromisos, or commitments, mostly related to infrastructure such as expanding a toll highway and rolling out a new bus system. (The PAN, of course, disputes this, accusing him of irregularities in the awarding of contracts.)
For this campaign stop, he is using the same strategy, signing commitments number 62 and 63, promising to modernize Ciudad del Carmen's port and launch construction of a highway. The crowd roars its approval.
To be sure, Mr. Pena Nieto has benefited from the fallout from Mr. Calderon's decision to launch a military offensive against the drug cartels. Barbarous calamities – such as the recent discovery of 49 decapitated heads dumped off a highway near Monterrey – are daily staples in the media, leaving many citizens psychologically numbed.
"This is a problem that should concern the whole North American region, especially our relationship with the U.S., the country with which we share a border," he says. He wants to focus more efforts on reducing the crime that affects the lives of ordinary Mexicans, including human trafficking, extortion and kidnapping. He also plans to leave the military in place until police receive the training they need to confront the cartels.
Mr. Pena Nieto has also gained from the fact that the PAN is riven with internal division and has run a weak campaign. Candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, Mr. Calderon's education minister, is now in third place. Andres Manual Lopez Obrador, with the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), has gained support in recent weeks thanks to student protests, though many still consider him unelectable due to his bitter refusal in 2006 to accept a narrow defeat to Mr. Calderon. A new poll released this week shows him just four percentage points behind Mr. Pena Nieto, while in other surveys he has lagged at 10 or more points behind.
Back at the PRI rally, housewives Teresa Ceballos and Amina Badillo giggle as they explain why they will vote for Mr. Pena Nieto. His gorgeous smile and alluring brown eyes help of course. But they also believe he is a man of his word. "I like his proposals and he always keeps his promises," said Ms. Badillo, a mother of four.
They are untroubled by his unorthodox personal life, which includes infidelities during his first marriage and two out-of-wedlock children. Following the 2007 death of his first wife, he married Angelica Rivera, a soap-opera star. She has released "reality TV-style" videos portraying the couple kissing and the candidate eating ice cream. Entitled What My Eyes See, and What My Heart Feels the videos have garnered thousands of likes on Facebook and views on YouTube.
At the "anti-Pena Nieto" rally in the capital's historic square on May 19, students remain infuriated by what they say is biased coverage on Televisa and TV Azteca – and are suspicious the PRI has not broken from its authoritarian past. "The candidate has absolutely no merit," declared Jose Antonio Hernandez, a student protester.
To placate his critics, Mr. Pena Nieto released a 10-point "democratic presidency" pledge, promising to respect human rights, the right to protest and the independence of the legislative and judiciary branches.
And yet, he may find it easier to construct roads and bridges than to restore credibility to the country's broken institutions. Only 2 per cent of criminal cases are ever resolved in the country, due to corrupt municipal police and local politicians. Congressmen in Mexico earn three times more than the average salary of legislators in Latin America, and most sit for only about six months of the year. Since candidates cannot stand for consecutive re-election, and cannot be recalled, there is a lack of accountability.
Mexicans will soon find out whether the PRI's star candidate is – as his rivals claim – a new face on the same old political machine, or perfectly cast for the role of a transformative leader who can help temper the furious wars among the drug cartels, consolidate the country's young democracy, and give its citizens hope for the future.