MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The frontrunner in Mexico's 2012 presidential race pledged on Sunday to break past decades of political paralysis and deliver the country from a deepening spiral of drug violence and sluggish economic growth.
Thousands of cheering supporters rallied around Enrique Pena Nieto, the charismatic young ex-governor of Mexico's most populous state, after he registered in Mexico City as the official presidential candidate of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI).
With a 20-point lead in national polls, Pena Nieto, 45, is the strongest candidate fielded by the PRI since the party that ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century lost power in 2000.
After two conservative administrations and growing frustration with rising crime and economic inequality, Pena Nieto is offering a message of hope, backed by the PRI's long experience in government.
"Today in Mexico there is fear, anxiety, discouragement. But at the same time there is a growing force, optimistic, and sure that better times are coming," Pena Nieto told the crowd gathered at the party's headquarters. He promised to make the country safer, reduce social inequality and create more jobs.
Following its defeat in 2000, the PRI fractured. But the party's massive machine of unions, civil groups and farmers have rallied behind Pena Nieto. His good looks and message of change have captured wide support beyond the PRI's base.
"Unless the Virgin of Guadalupe intervenes, he will win the election in a landslide," said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William & Mary in Virginia.
Pena Nieto is seen by analysts and investors as Mexico's best chance to pass key economic reforms, such as opening the state oil company to private investment and reforming labor laws, due to the PRI's sway over the country's biggest unions.
While Pena Nieto's victory may seem likely, the PRI could falter in congressional races, which would hamper Pena Nieto's agenda. Rivalries between parties have scuttled major reforms ever since the PRI lost its congressional majority in 1997.
Three candidates are vying for the nomination of President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party (PAN), with former education minister Josefina Vazquez Mota in the lead.
The leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) is backing Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who nearly won in 2006 but is now in a distant third place in the polls.
Mexicans will not vote until next July, leaving plenty of time for a reversal in Pena Nieto's fortune. Calderon came from far behind to win in 2006.
Pena Nieto has benefited from a cozy relationship with dominant broadcaster Televisa. Its adulatory coverage of his campaign and his wedding to one of its soap stars has been reviled by critics as a throwback to the days of Mexico's authoritarian past.
Rivals paint him as a puppet of the PRI's old party bosses. Vazquez Mota said the PRI's lack of a primary showed it was the same old party, which defined its rule by imposing a candidate who triumphed in sham elections.
"In the PAN we are seeing a democratic process, in other parties we see the traditions and customs they historically have had," Vazquez Mota told daily newspaper El Universal.
By the end of its 71 years of rule, the PRI was synonymous with rampant corruption that undercut Mexico's economy and allowed the country's powerful criminal gangs to flourish.
PAN candidates are trying to tar Pena Nieto's image by suggesting the PRI is still in the pockets of drug cartels.
But those charges may not stick. Pena Nieto has given the party a new face after a term as a wildly popular governor of Mexico State, where he won support by building roads and schools and steered clear of any major scandals.
"In 70 years the PRI made mistakes, got lost and tripped up, but we have been learning and we won't let it happen again," said Emilio Gamboa, who leads the PRI's popular front.
During the PAN's two administrations, the economy has grown at about a third of the pace it needs to create enough good jobs for all the young Mexicans entering the workforce.
Meanwhile, more than 45,000 people have died in Calderon's military-led offensive against drug cartels. Many backed the move to challenge the gangs, but doubts are now growing.
"People think security has gotten out of the PAN's control," said Jose Antonio Crespo from graduate school CIDE. "While they think there was corruption under the PRI, at least there was order and more effective governance."
Additional reporting by Miguel Angel Gutierrez; editing by Anthony Boadle and Christopher Wilson