- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 17, 2012

APIZACO, Mexico — Teresa Hernandez held a look of pride and a smile as wide as the midday sun, as she waited for the arrival of presidential candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota.

“I never thought I would see this,” said Mrs. Hernandez, who at 72 remembers a time in Mexico when women were not even allowed to vote, let alone run for the highest office in the land.

“Men are always in charge, and the women are always underneath,” she said. “Now, the nation will advance forward because of Josefina. It will advance by electing a woman to be president.”

Mexican women have had voting rights since 1953.

The feeling coursing through Mrs. Hernandez was one the ruling National Action Party (PAN) hoped to capitalize on when it picked Mrs. Vazquez Mota to be the first women to run on a major party ticket.

Since Mexico’s constitution allows presidents to serve a single, six-year term, the incumbent and socially conservative President Felipe Calderon will leave office later this year.

A former congresswoman and an education minister under Mr. Calderon, the 52-year-old Mrs. Vazquez Mota has attracted an energized following.

Yet she has so far struggled to achieve a level of momentum that will likely be required to beat front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto, whose centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) is poised to reclaim the presidency in July.

Polls show Mrs. Vazquez Mota running well ahead of left-leaning candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, but she is unable to get within 10 percentage points of Mr. Pena Nieto.

The problem, say analysts, is that she seems burdened under the stigma of Mr. Calderon, whose presidency has been plagued by slow economic growth and stained by the blood of some 50,000 Mexicans killed in drug-war violence since 2006.

Mrs. Vazquez Mota has tried posters, T-shirts and ads heralding her slogan, ‘Josefina Diferente.’

However, she “hasn’t been able to brand herself effectively enough for the national audience,” said Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

“She’s not selling herself as a competent manager,” he added. “That’s completely missing from her campaign.”

What she has done is build a platform on criticizing the opposition PRI, often alluding in speeches to high-level PRI corruption.

“I reiterate my proposal of creating life sentences for politicians who make deals with organized criminals,” she said at one recent rally.

“They deserve the maximum penalty because a politician that makes deals with criminals — I’ve said it, and I repeat it — is no longer a politician but just another ‘capo,’ ” Mrs. Vazquez Mota said, referring to local slang for an organized crime boss.

PAN is also pushing an ad campaign that slams Mr. Pena Nieto, asserting that his legacy as governor is the state of Mexico is riddled by lies and incomplete public works projects.

Mrs. Vazquez Mota goes to lengths to channel that message, along with her energy, to young people.

“We’re going to have a regime that’s more free and more transparent. I direct this message to all the young people here!” she roared at the rally in Apizaco, a town located halfway between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz.

Her message is striking a particularly deep chord with some first-time voters.

“Josefina’s got something extra that fills you up,” said Rene Carmona, 19, who stood outside the rally.

“A lot of people say Mexico is not ready for a woman president because we have a society very rooted in Machismo, but my generation is changing opinions about women.”

Mrs. Vazquez Mota is just “more convincing than Pena Nieto,” Mr. Carmona added.

“He’s a lot of merchandising and he’s a product of marketing.” Mr. Carmona said. “She’s the one who will bring the country forward.”

Later, back inside the rally, Mrs. Vazquez Mota, straddled by booming confetti cannons, clenched her fists at a podium.

“Mexico is ready!” she shouted.

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