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It’s a feeling echoed by many left-leaning observers, who remember the Salinas presidency in Mexico from 1988 to 1994 as an era defined as much by grandiose showmanship as by anti-democratic and corrupt corporatism.

“I just laugh at that,” Mr. Pena Nieto said. “My opponents have had a lot of time to attack me because my nomination to be the PRI candidate is not new.”

Deal-cutting denials

The real explanation for his popularity, he said, comes from the work he did from 2005 to 2011 as governor of the state of Mexico, the nation’s most populous state.

“The best way to prestige as a party is to deliver results in government,” he said. “That’s what happened in the state of Mexico, and the proof is that when elections came for my successor, my party won with 65 percent of the vote.”

He takes a similarly irreverent posture toward assertions of PRI deals with drug cartels.

Some, including Mr. Calderon, have suggested that upon entry back into the Mexican presidency, the PRI will embrace such tactics as a means to reduce the drug violence that has plagued the nation in recent years.

“That idea is more an attack tactic by my opponents than a real truth,” Mr. Pena Nieto said. “Whoever is in government has an obligation to fight organized crime. There’s no doubt I am committed to that fight.”

He added, however, that there should be a “discussion” on how to refine the Calderon administration’s all-out war on cartels to “to achieve better results.”

In addition to calling for a new, elite police force to fight organized crime, Mr. Pena Nieto told The Times, he would create “an independent czar position that can attend directly to the demands of citizens who are victims of corruption in any level of government — federal, state or municipal.”

Yet when it comes to U.S. relations, he is quick to shift back to the economic theme.

“That doesn’t mean we want to shift away from the focus on creating safe conditions,” he said. “But, let’s work on other things.”