Mexico officially launches its general election campaign Friday, with the main opposition party favored to regain the power it lost in 2000 after 71 years of rule.
President Felipe Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party (PAN), is not eligible for a second term but his war on drug traffickers launched after he took office in December 2006 will be at the center of the debate.
With over 50,000 people killed and mounting violence, PAN candidate Josefina Vazquez Mota, 51, will have to overcome deep public skepticism that the brutal offensive has dented the influence and wealth of drug cartels.
A Reforma poll, the last published before the start of campaigning, confirmed the significant lead of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) candidate Enrique Pena Nieto, a 45-year-old lawyer and the opposition's standard-bearer.
The telegenic former Mexico state governor had 45 percent support ahead of the July 1 vote, followed by Vazquez Mota's 31 percent and 22 percent for leftist candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, 59, of the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD).
Pena Nieto launches his campaign in Guadalajara, Mexico's second largest city and traditionally been a PAN stronghold, with other ceremonies in cities around the nation just after midnight.
"It's a way of signifying the start of a new era for the country," said Luis Videgaray, coordinator of the PRI campaign.
Lopez Obrador opens his drive with a press conference in the capital and then heads to his hometown, Macuscapa in the southeast state of Tabasco.
Although he is not a candidate, Calderon has been defending his war on drug cartels.
The outgoing president attributed the violence plaguing Mexico to the negligence of his predecessors, especially PRI leaders, as drug traffickers made advances.
"There are some who believe that if the government had not intervened, it (the violence) would not have happened. But in fact, it happened because the government did not act before," he said on Wednesday.
The PRI meanwhile accuses the government of having fueled the violence by launching the military against the cartels.
Despite its controversy, no candidate can propose to completely overturn Calderon's war on drugs strategy and expect to get elected, said political scientist Javier Oliva of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
"No candidate can say: we are going to start from scratch, completely revamp everything," Oliva told AFP.
Washington has backed Calderon's strategy and US vice president Joe Biden, who met the three presidential candidates, said they all had vowed to maintain Mexico's commitment to fight the drug cartels.
But Lopez Obrador, who lost narrowly in 2006, said he would gradually remove national security duties for the army and overhaul the national police.
The government is spending millions on security for candidates, and Interior Ministry Alejandro Poire said this week that all complaints would be investigated carefully after claims from the left that its candidates have been threatened by drug gangs.
Voters will go to the polls for a single round majority vote in the Mexican presidential election. The Senate's 128 seats and 500 seats in the Chamber of Deputies will also be up for grabs, along with the mayor of Mexico City and authorities in a dozen states.
The Reforma poll also found that just three months before the elections, 27 percent of the 77 million eligible voters (out of a population of 112 million) remain undecided.
Source: AFP Global Edition