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Mexican female candidate tries to mount a comeback

On a campaign swing through the heart of her political stronghold, the first serious female contender for Mexico's presidency didn't fill a town square or the tables at a business luncheon.

After stumbling early in her campaign, Josefina Vazquez Mota is trying to mount a comeback but isn't drawing the crowds or the energy that marked her nomination in February as the first woman to lead a major party in presidential elections. Her rival, Enrique Pena Nieto, has built a double-digit lead in the polls ahead of the July 1 vote, more than 20-percentage points in some.

In a downtown plaza in the city of Leon over the weekend, the cameras could easily spot the empty spaces. Signs and shirts for gubernatorial candidate Miguel Marquez, who also appeared, outnumbered those for Vazquez Mota.

Her party, the ruling National Action Party, or PAN, has yet to recover from the divisive primary that Vazquez Mota won over the candidate of President Felipe Calderon and the party establishment.

Her initial events after the campaign officially started two weeks ago were marked by poor planning, small crowds, or disruptive hecklers.

Despite a reorganization last week, it's still not clear where the campaign is going, newspaper columnist Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez said Monday.

"There have been mistakes that reveal a lack of professionalism in her inner circle," said Silva-Herzog, a law professor at the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology. "Despite the attempt to show unity within the PAN, the wound of the internal election has yet to heal."

Vazquez Mota disagrees, telling The Associated Press in an interview Sunday that the remaining 2½ months is enough time to narrow the gap with Pena Nieto of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.

"Not only do I have time, we're going to win," she said during a campaign stop in Guadalajara, one of two in the heart of her conservative PAN party's base.

The PRI is trying to return to power after ruling Mexico for 71 years, then losing the presidency to the PAN in 2000. With left-leaning candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador running third, Vazquez Mota is considered the strongest candidate to block the return of the long-ruling party.

But the 51-year-old former education secretary is fighting voter weariness with 12 years of PAN governments. A February poll showed that only a third of Mexicans think the country is going in the right direction under Calderon, who can't run for re-election. Eighty percent think the economy and security have gotten worse.

Vazquez Mota said she will do more town halls and smaller events as part of a new strategy to target undecided voters.

She said her early campaign problems, including a canceled rally, a dizzy spell from low blood pressure and a misspoken promise to "strengthen money laundering," were overblown by the press.

"This has been a week for changing the campaign scheme," she said, "to take the dialogue directly to the people."

Vazquez Mota said Sunday that she prefers to travel with a small entourage and leave her strategists in Mexico City. She is also content to depend on local party people to turn out the crowds at her events. That contrasts with Pena Nieto's carefully choreographed events, where handlers don't leave any detail to chance.

"Everyone has their own campaign style. They have to do their own thing," she said of the PRI. "I'm well covered by the local party leaders."

Vazquez Mota's nomination at first generated excitement and she seemed to be closing the gap with Pena Nieto, who has led in the polls for more than a year. She often cites her background raising three daughters to say she will protect Mexican families.

She defeated the candidate thought to be Calderon's favorite and spent the pre-campaign distancing herself from the president, saying she would govern with a coalition. Calderon is known for surrounding himself with only a tight loyal circle, which didn't include Vazquez Mota. Her campaign slogan is "Josefina. Different."

She responded a week ago by drawing herself closer to the president's men, naming many of them to high posts in her advisory team.

"What every candidate in the world needs to win is the party and today I have my party," she said, noting earlier that her campaign was plagued by internal divisions. "People who know my trajectory in politics know that I'm always loyal to the team but that I always keep a space for autonomy. This campaign is no exception."

Two things still could favor the self-proclaimed "jefa," or female boss.

Candidates have yet to face each other in debates, where some speculate the well-rehearsed Pena Nieto may have problems if he is forced to go off script.

Also, Vazquez Mota's party is launching a series of ads that call Pena Nieto a "liar," and contend that he didn't deliver results when he served as Mexico state governor. The ads attack a list of 608 public works projects that have been the cornerstone of the PRI candidate's campaign.

The PRI has challenged the PAN to a debate Tuesday about the allegations, and the PAN has accepted if they can do it at the site of one of Pena Nieto's uncompleted projects.

Vazquez Mota campaign aides dismissed the notion that she wasn't drawing good crowds. A rally Sunday night in Guadalajara, Mexico's second-largest city, drew an estimated 13,000 people, according to the campaign, even as they said they expected up to 20,000.

"We don't bus them in, we don't pay them lunches," said Herminio Rebollo, Vazquez Mota's personal aide, referring to common campaign tactics in Mexico that are used to build crowds. "They came. They waited four hours. Look at all the elderly women."

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Follow Adriana Gomez Licon on Twitter at http://twitter.com/agomezlicon