In this Jan. 5, 2012 photo, Enrique Pena Nieto, presidential candidate for the Revolutionary Institutional Party (PRI) speaks in Mexico City. The 2012 presidential race, which officially begins Friday March 30, 2012, is the PRI's race to lose. A dozen years ago, voters rose up and ended its 71-year iron grip on power, and many thought it had suffered its death knell. Elections are July 1. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Raul Enrique Trujillo was 6 years old when voters kicked Mexico's long-ruling party out of the presidency after decades of government by corruption and coercion. Now 18, he'll cast his first vote to bring back them back.
It's a comeback many thought impossible. But the 2012 presidential campaign, which officially begins Friday, is the Institutional Revolutionary Party's race to lose.
PRI candidate Enrique Pena Nieto starts the 90-day campaign, set by electoral law, with more than a 10-point lead in most polls over Josefina Vazquez Mota of the now-governing National Action Party, or PAN. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, known as the PRD, trails in third.
Though the PRI lost the presidency in 2000 after ruling 71 years with an iron fist, it has maintained the political machinery of eight decades, not to mention two-thirds of Mexico's 31 governors.
The hope for democratic change that swept the PRI's opponents into the presidency has evaporated. People are weary of President Felipe Calderon's bloody assault on organized crime after 47,000 deaths and many are nostalgic for a party that, for all its faults, brought Mexico into the modern era without the coups, revolutions and civil wars that plagued the rest of Latin America.
The party has been fast out of the blocks this election season with the charismatic, Kennedy-handsome Pena Nieto, 45, who carries the message of a "new PRI" that has learned from its mistakes. Party leaders say it has a whole new slate of young candidates who are more democratic and didn't work under the old regime.
"The best thing that could have happened to the PRI, in a certain sense, is to have lost in 2000," said Francisco Guzman, Pena Nieto's 31-year-old chief of staff. "A loss makes you see what you have to do, how you have to adapt to change."
But the comeback has been helped by the shortcomings of rival parties as much as a yearning for the return of the PRI.
The young Trujillo initially wanted to vote for Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard, a moderate member of the PRD whose term has seen the capital become safer and more environmentally conscious. But the party instead went with Lopez Obrador, an old-style politician who narrowly lost the presidency in 2006 to Calderon.
Like many Mexicans, who share enormous cynicism when it comes to their political class, Trujillo says he will support the "menos peor" — the lesser evil among the choices.
"When the PRI governed Mexico, it worked. They maintained social stability," Trujillo said.
He said it was a mistake for Calderon to go after organized crime. "You can't attack an organization that large ... it's attacking the people. Now it's out of control."
Pena Nieto is the young face of a party long known as the "dinosaurs," surrounding himself with thirtysomethings and running a tightly controlled campaign with a message that he will end drug violence and create jobs. His proposals lack details, as do all candidates', who say the law hasn't yet allowed them to campaign with specifics.
As governor of Mexico state, the country's most populous, Pena Nieto operated with very little ideology and focused on tangible public works like new roads and hospitals — 608 commitments that he promised and then completed.
Critics say they were mostly superficial and some were already in progress before he took office.
The candidate took a media drubbing earlier this year when he struggled to name three books that had influenced his life. He didn't know the minimum wage in Mexico or the price of a kilogram of tortillas, the mainstay of Mexican diets, saying, "I'm not the woman of the house."
So far it hasn't hurt him in the polls.
His opponents jokingly call him the "baby dinosaur," noting Pena Nieto enjoys the blessings of an old-time PRI cabal based in his state that formed in the 1940s and still holds sway over the party's destiny.
Opponents have worked to remind voters of the old PRI, which massacred students demonstrating for democracy in 1968 and allegedly stole the 1988 presidential election with a blackout that shut down the vote-counting system just as the opposition candidate was pulling ahead. When the system was restored, the PRI candidate had the most votes.
Earlier this year, the PRI party president, Humberto Moreira, resigned under the cloud of a $2.6 billion state government debt that accumulated when he was governor of Coahuila, financed at least in part by falsified documents.
Then Mexican authorities revealed that three former PRI governors are under investigation for undisclosed reasons by the agency that prosecutes organized crime. U.S. court documents said one was alleged to have taken payments from drug cartels.
"There is not a single indication that the party has changed," said Jose Antonio Crespo, an analyst at the Center for Economic Studies.
PRI officials disagree.
"If someone in the party has committed a crime, we are the first to ask that the law be applied in the strongest way possible," said Emilio Lozoya, 37, Pena Nieto's coordinator of international affairs.
When the PRI lost the 2000 election, people wept with joy in the streets. The overthrow was decades in the making, a mostly peaceful and gradual revolt that led to the victory of Vicente Fox of the National Action Party.
The PRI had been dubbed "the perfect dictatorship" by Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa because everything was conducted under the guise of democratic elections, in which a president could only serve a single six-year term.
"The PRI is a party that was born without ideology," said historian Lorenzo Meyer at the College of Mexico. "It has an authoritarian mentality ... Its principle objective is to have power and to enjoy it, but with some intelligence, not like an animal."
It was founded in 1929 under President Plutarco Elias Calles, whose National Revolutionary Party imposed presidential control, discipline among party members nationwide, and granted power in exchange for loyalty.
By 1946 it assumed its current name, the colors of the Mexican flag and won a majority of laborers, peasants and social activists, boasting representatives in virtually every community in the country.
Opponents warn that the PRI will return to its old tactics. But others say that's no longer possible even it wants to: The ushering in of democracy in 2000 effectively weakened the presidency and broke its hold on institutions.
"The power of the presidency migrated to the governors," said Luis Rubio, president of the Center for Development Studies, a political and economy analysis firm.
Many voters now see all parties as equally corrupt. The PAN and the PRD have suffered their own PRI-style public scandals, including Fox's illegal campaign contributions from a group of private donors known as "Friends of Fox."
"There is no evidence that corruption diminishes with an alternative," said Luis Carlos Ugalde, former president of Mexico's National Electoral Institute.
Associated Press writer Gloria Perez in Toluca contributed to this report.