MEXICO CITY — The man who most Mexicans believe will be elected their next president has finally said publicly that he wants the job.
Enrique Pena Nieto, the former governor of Mexico State known for his movie star looks and marriage to a soap opera star, told the Televisa network late Monday that he plans to seek the nomination to run in the July 2012 election as the candidate of the once all-powerful Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
His announcement four days after leaving the governor's office left Mexico abuzz Tuesday with one of the most-anticipated bits of non-news. Everyone knew he would run, and polls say that if the election were held today, he would win.
"Surprise," Jesus Zambrano, president of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD, joked in a statement. "We almost fainted."
Pena Nieto, 45, is seen as the PRI's best chance to regain the presidency it held for more than 70 years before losing to Vicente Fox in 2000 and then Felipe Calderon in 2006, both of the National Action Party, or PAN.
Until Monday, Pena Nieto had never directly said he planned to run.
He told the Televisa network he will work hard for the nomination, calling the polls that put him ahead just a "snapshot" of the moment.
He also put out what many expect to be his campaign message: That he represents a new generation and not the ruling PRI of old, which was nicknamed the "perfect dictatorship" by Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.
Pena Nieto said he expects to prove "that we can renew hope among Mexicans, that we can build a better nation, that we can live in a county of quiet and peace."
Potential candidates from other parties polling far behind him have left their other posts and have been pre-campaigning for weeks now, including former Finance Secretary Ernesto Cordero, former Sen. Santiago Creel and former Congresswoman Josefina Vazquez Mota, all for the PAN.
The only presumed candidate who is still in office is Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard of the PRD, who matched the news about Pena Nieto on Tuesday with his own coincidental platform – his last State of the City address. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who narrowly lost the presidency to Calderon in 2006, has also said he will again seek the PRD nomination.
The PRD, meanwhile, demanded on Tuesday to know why Pena Nieto was being protected by the Estado Mayor, Mexico's equivalent of the Secret Service, if he's a private citizen.
After using media blitzes over the last five years to tout the accomplishments of his administration in Mexico's most populous state, Pena Nieto had been lying low since the election of his successor, Eruviel Avila, in July.
Mexican law requires presidential candidates to leave other political posts in advance of the campaign, and prohibits official presidential campaigning until February of the election year, when all parties officially choose their candidates.
Senate President Manlio Fabio Beltrones is also expected to seek the nomination for the PRI.
The PRI, founded in 1929, ruled for seven decades with the president operating like a monarch, virtually appointing his successor, state governors and the mayor of Mexico City by naming PRI candidates who faced little electoral opposition. If they did, the party was known for both buying and stealing votes.
But now nearly a third of Mexico's registered voters are under age 30, meaning the PRI hasn't been in power since they became eligible to vote. Instead, they see the PRI as a change from the PAN, which has been in power for nearly 12 years and has left voters disillusioned with a wave of drug violence.
Not everyone sees Pena Nieto as fresh, however.
"He's not very modern," political analyst Jose Antonio Crespo said. "At least his behavior has nothing to do with a renewed PRI."
For example, Crespo said, Pena Nieto interviewed all aspiring candidates for governor in Mexico State before choosing Avila to run in the old style known as the "dedazo," or hand-picked.
Pena Nieto is married to the popular Televisa soap opera actress Angelica Rivera, nicknamed the "Seagull" for her role in a top TV show about a tequila-producing family, "Destilando Amor."
Her reputation as one of Televisa's biggest moneymakers has led many to speculate about Pena Nieto's relationship in a presidential campaign with Mexico's most powerful television network, where he chose to make his announcement on a late-night news program.
(This version CORRECTS former title of Ernesto Cordero to finance secretary, instead of economy secretary.)