MEXICO CITY – Jose Antonio Meade's race for Mexico's presidency so far has looked more like a slog through mud — a struggle to free himself from the scandal-stained reputation of the governing Institutional Revolutionary Party that chose the seemingly apolitical economist as its standard-bearer.
A string of governors from the party have been imprisoned — some after fleeing the country as fugitives — or are under investigation for corruption, and many Mexicans blame the party known as the PRI for failure to halt the growth of violence across much of the country. So Meade, a man who has worked in Cabinet for presidents of two different parties, is stressing his own, relatively untarnished record.
"I'm the candidate," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "And there is not just the perception, but the certainty of 20 years of an honest and transparent life and an honorable trajectory."
So far, with the election three months away, that hasn't been enough. Nearly all polls say Meade is running third, favored by less than 20 percent of likely voters.
"Mexico's long-dominant Institutional Revolutionary Party is now so linked with corruption that it may be hobbled in the 2018 national elections," the U.S. Congressional Research Service wrote in a March analysis.
Meade argues that all the country's parties have a similar bad image and says he is the best-equipped candidate to tackle corruption. He has proposed eliminating presidents' immunity against prosecution, increasing the autonomy of the Attorney General's Office and seizing the property of politicians found to be corrupt.
"To take on corruption what we have to do is give more tools to the government, and the only one who has put forward a serious proposal about this topic is me," Meade said.
This is the first time that the PRI, the dominant force in Mexican politics for most of the past century, has ever named a non-member as its presidential candidate. The choice was widely seen as the only good option for a party tainted by scandals.
It's also the first time Meade, 49, has ever run for public office, though his father — also a long-time government administrator — served a term in congress for the PRI.
The lack of stump-speech experience shows. His speaking style often reflects his policy wonk background as a Yale-educated economist who also has a law degree.
Meade served in a series of bureaucratic posts before joining the Cabinet of President Felipe Calderon, a member of the conservative National Action Party, as energy secretary in 2011 and as treasury secretary a year later. Incoming PRI President Enrique Pena Nieto kept Meade on as the head of foreign affairs, then social services, and finally the treasury again.
Meade had left his job as Mexico's top diplomat before the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose repeated criticisms of Mexico and Mexicans have strained ties and whose demand for a renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement has created economic uncertainty.
If he wins, Meade said, he will seek dialogue at all levels of government to preserve a relationship that is deeper than many believe and that goes beyond topics such as the current renegotiation of NAFTA, which Trump has said is unfair to the U.S.
NAFTA doesn't anchor the relationship, Meade said. "The infrastructure anchors it, the communication links anchor it, the business ties, the investments."
He also said he would continue to work with the U.S. on security issues, a key part of the current bilateral relationship, but added that Mexico has to look to itself for solutions. "The challenge is our challenge," he said.
Security "is a goal that will be achieved when we have a sufficient police capacity, when we have a good capacity to control the flow of arms, when we have a good capacity to take money from organized crime," he said. His platform proposes legal reforms to make it easier to seize ill-gotten property.
Pena Nieto, who leaves office Dec. 1, became president vowing to cut crime, much of it tied to drug gangs. Homicide rates initially dipped during his administration, only to soar back to historically high levels over the past year.
The Calderon administration, in which Meade served as finance and energy secretary, launched an unprecedented offensive against drug trafficking and deployed thousands of soldiers and marines across the country, and Pena Nieto has continued to lean heavily on the military for police work despite complaints by human rights groups.
Meade said public safety has to be the responsibility of civilian authorities, but the armed forces have to play a role.