MEXICO CITY — A month into Mexico's breakneck campaign season, the movie-star handsome candidate of the former ruling party is 20 percentage points ahead of his two main rivals and drawing tens of thousands of cheering supporters to tightly choreographed rallies that feel as much like victory celebrations as campaign events.
If the next two months go as planned, Enrique Pena Nieto will return the Institutional Revolutionary Party to Mexico's highest office 12 years after voters fed up with its corruption, mismanagement and repression of opponents ended its 71 years of autocratic rule.
What a Pena Nieto presidency would look like, however, remains unclear. The fresh-faced, 45-year-old former governor is promising national rejuvenation after six years of a grueling drug war and sluggish economic growth, but his dozens of campaign pledges center on more mundane matters – small-scale infrastructure projects such as highway overpasses and better flood control.
He has offered few specifics about how he would address Mexico's bigger problems like crime and poverty, sticking tightly to his broader themes of change and competence as he tries to ride his commanding lead to a victory in the July 1 elections.
"The important thing for me, what will be my highest priority, will be delivering results," Pena Nieto told The Associated Press in a recent interview. "Mexicans clearly want a change and I want to be that option of change."
Pena Nieto is a riveting public speaker, but he's slipped badly when talking off the cuff, struggling to identify his supposed favorite books and acknowledging his ignorance of the price of tortillas, an essential fact for millions of voters.
On the personal side, he has acknowledged cheating on his first wife with at least two different women, producing an illegitimate child with each one before his spouse died of what was described as a seizure-related heart attack. He also had three children with his first wife.
Voters are overlooking the negative, his backers say, because they see Pena Nieto as an able, pragmatic and inclusive leader who knows how to negotiate difficult issues, listen to people and, above all, fulfill his promises.
Critics, however, call Pena Nieto the product of sophisticated marketing, a pretty face incapable of improvising and dependent on advisers. Only Mexicans' deep disenchantment with the governing National Action Party could allow the candidate of the PRI to become the face of change, skeptics say.
Some of the most powerful figures in the once-reviled PRI have helped engineer Pena Nieto's rise, and his advisers have assembled a tightly disciplined and professional political team that has managed to push to the background pointed questions and criticism about the candidate's plans for Mexico, his personal flaws, his ties to the party's more unsavory side and his readiness to govern the country.
Among the candidate's larger stands is his support for changes in the law that would make it easier for a single party to have an absolute majority in the lower house of Mexico's Congress, raising the prospect of a country where the PRI, which already governs most states, could hold the levers of powers in all levels of government – as it did for most of the last century.
Currently, the rules of Mexico's proportional representation system make it virtually impossible for one party to win an absolute majority in the 500-member lower house.
Pena Nieto "has an old approach, of trying to retake what existed in the `60s," said Luis Rubio, president of the Center for Development Research, an independent think tank. "What he says is, `I don't believe in building, in constructing coalitions, but in taking total control in order to do what I want.'"
For a country mired in major crises, some see dangers in electing a president whose biggest selling point has been his youthful charm.
"He has the power to take advantage of his ability to seduce, this youthful image, this image of being different," said journalist Alberto Tavira, who interviewed the candidate's mother, lovers and other women for the book "Pena Nieto's Women," which portrays him as a seducer. "But let's be honest, this isn't always enough to govern a country."
Raised in Atlacomulco, a city in the north of Mexico state, Pena Nieto attended Roman Catholic schools and became interested in politics as a youth.
He joined the PRI at 18 and soon came under the sway of the Atlacomulco Group, an informal clique of PRI politicians with reputations as old-time political wheeler-dealers.
Following well-worn PRI practice, the group promised government projects for the common man, while lining its pockets and constructing networks of influence and loyalty through backroom deals. A return to Atlacomulco-style politics would mark a break with the PRI's tendency to run colorless, market-oriented technocrats for the presidency since 1982.
Pena Nieto trained as a lawyer at Panamerican University in Mexico City, part of the ultraconservative Catholic Opus Dei movement, and graduated with a master's degree in administration from the Institute of Technology and Advanced Studies of Monterrey.
Seen as more conservative than many other PRI members, Pena Nieto worked for Mexico state Gov. Arturo Montiel, who became one of Pena Nieto's most important mentors. Montiel dropped out as a potential PRI presidential candidate in 2006 amid accusations that he illegally enriched himself with state funds.
Pena Nieto won election to Mexico state's legislature, then gained national prominence in 2005 when he ran successfully to be governor of the state, winning headlines with an unusual strategy – signing 608 campaign pledges witnessed by a notary public. He says he fulfilled them all. The National Action Party contends he didn't.
He is pursuing an identical strategy in his presidential campaign, crossing the country making pledges and promoting the image of a competent public servant focused more on fulfilling his promises with tangible practical results than focusing on questions of ideology. His closest rival, Josefina Vasquez Mota of the PAN, has attacked him for what she labels a series of uncompleted pledges as governor but has failed to gain much traction since winning her party's nomination in February
Over the last month, Pena Nieto has pledged to obsessively promote economic growth and generate jobs in a country where about half the population is categorized as poor, using better education and higher employment to stem criminality and violence.
He has also promised to open the state petroleum company, Pemex, to more private investment, an idea most older PRI leaders would not have broached.
Pena Nieto's personal life has also opened him to criticism but so far hasn't proved to be a political liability.
He has acknowledged cheating on his first wife, Monica Pretilini, in affairs that produced two children from two different women. One of the children died from cancer a year after birth, Pena Nieto told the newspaper El Universal. The other, a boy now in elementary school, became the subject of controversy after his mother took to online social networks late last year to accuse Pena Nieto of being an unsupportive father.
Pretilini died in 2007. Pena Nieto said the cause was a condition related to epilepsy but fumbled and was unable to provide details when questioned about it by television journalist Jorge Ramos in an interview two years later. After the interview provoked critical comments from pundits and the public, Pena Nieto provided Ramos with a private doctor's certificate saying Pretilini had died of cardiac arrest after months of suffering from seizures.
Pena Nieto has since married Angelica Rivera, one of the country's most famous television actresses.
While they have become icons of glamour, some critics see Pena Nieto's romantic past as evidence of broader unsuitability for office.
Pena Nieto told reporters several months ago he rejects that image.
"I see myself as a family man," he said.
Pena Nieto has long been seen as the man to beat this year and has rarely lost that sheen of invincibility.
By late last year, he managed to coalesce virtually uniform support within the PRI for him to be the party's presidential candidate, avoiding the internal divisions that dogged the PRI in 2006, and the PAN and leftist Democratic Revolution Party this year.
Perhaps the last chance his opponents will have to catch up is a debate scheduled for Sunday night.
With his path to the presidency seemingly clear, many of his opponents say Pena Nieto can be trusted to try to stick to a script that has served him well.