MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico's embattled ruling conservatives will enter the 2012 election year with renewed hope if the president's older sister can pull of an unprecedented win in a state ballot on Sunday.
In just over six weeks, the sister of President Felipe Calderon has turned an eight point poll deficit against the PRI candidate in Michoacan into a six point advantage, according to voter surveys in the Reforma newspaper, the last on November 3.
A triumph would hand Michoacan to Calderon's National Action Party, or PAN, for the first time, and may also help Josefina Vazquez Mota, who has taken a lead in some polls to be the PAN's presidential candidate in 2012.
"If she (Calderon) wins it would show that a PRI victory in 2012 is not a foregone conclusion -- as one or two people in the party seem to think is the case," said Lorenzo Meyer, a political scientist at the Colegio de Mexico.
Next year's presidential campaign will focus heavily on Mexico's vicious drugs war, and it has also been the central campaign issue in Michoacan. Candidates have had to avoid the most dangerous areas of the state, a pattern likely to be repeated in next year's presidential race.
"From the mother who doesn't know what to do with her daughter to the businessman being extorted, they're all insisting on the need for security. It's what people want most of all," Luisa Maria Calderon said in a television interview.
Michoacan has been hard hit by gangland killings in recent years, and a PAN mayor was shot dead by a group of armed men while out campaigning for the election last week.
Drug violence has pushed up the murder rate in Michoacan by more than a third from last year.
LOOKING AFTER FELIPE
Known as "Cocoa" for her dark complexion, the plain-talking 55-year-old with nearly 30 years in politics has run a slick campaign making extensive use of multimedia, including a channel on video sharing site YouTube dubbed "CocoaTV".
The PAN presidential hopefuls have also swung in behind the "first sister", campaigning hard for her in the state where her brother was born into a political family in 1962.
A PAN victory would also be a blow for the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) which has governed Michoacan for a decade but has struggled to present a united front since almost beating Felipe Calderon in the 2006 presidential race.
Shortly after he took office, Calderon ordered the army in to fight Mexico's drug gangs, a conflict that has since claimed some 45,000 lives. The carnage has battered the popularity of the PAN and this year dragged Calderon's approval ratings to the lowest point of his presidency.
The killing on November 2 of Ricardo Guzman, PAN mayor of La Piedad, sparked national condemnation and the sympathy aroused by his death could work in the party's favor on Sunday.
Mexico has suffered a number of high level political assassinations in the past two decades, and a group of pollsters were kidnapped during the Michoacan race.
By law, Felipe Calderon cannot run for a second term but he is keen to leave his party in power after the July 2012 vote, and his sister hopes a win on Sunday will help.
"My dad used to say that brothers and sisters are all we have, and that that was what we had to look after most of all," she said in a recent interview with daily Reforma.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)