MEXICO CITY (AP) — Josefina Vazquez Mota exulted in the explosion of camera flashes as a pumped-up crowd cheered her victory in a bruising three-way race to become the ruling party's presidential candidate and this country's first woman to lead a major ticket.
With her daughters beaming behind her, the candidate pledged in February to become Mexico's first female president. Over the next weeks, she pulled within single digits of the front-runner in the July 1 election.
In 12 years the tough-talking, workaholic economist had transformed herself from a motivational speaker and self-help author to one of the most powerful women in the country. She worked her way up from the lower ranks of the conservative National Action Party and scored a confident victory over two influential male competitors to win its presidential nomination. She had what looked like a solid shot at the country's highest office.
Then it all fell apart.
A series of gaffes and mishaps in the opening days of the relentless three-month march to the election halted Vazquez Mota's rise in the polls against Enrique Pena Nieto, the charismatic, 45-year-old candidate of the Institutional Revolutionary Party.
Her momentum lost, Vazquez Mota is now as much as 20 points behind Pena Nieto in many polls, weighed down by voter fatigue over economic hardship that some blame on President Felipe Calderon, also of the National Action Party, and his administration's grueling, nearly six-year-old war against drug cartels.
The candidate notes that polls still show about a fifth of voters still undecided.
"The goal is to go for a sector of important indecisive voters who will really define this election," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We began 40 points behind and we will make a sweep and overcome and get a very good victory."
Accustomed to winning and working so hard she has made herself sick at times, Vazquez Mota has bounced back from plenty of setbacks throughout her political career. But if the poll numbers hold, a landslide defeat would deal a painful blow to a woman who's carved out an unusually powerful position in a culture still imbued with machismo.
Mexican women have voted since 1953, but unlike other Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Chile, Mexico has never elected a woman president.
In a particularly bitter assessment by a fellow PAN member, former President Vicente Fox, who first recruited Vazquez Mota as a Cabinet member, proclaimed last month that "only a miracle" could save her race for the presidency.
It isn't just Fox. The entire political machine that brought Vazquez Mota, 51, into politics as an appointed member of Congress is being blamed for what many see as her likely defeat.
Some critics say divisions and disorganization within the PAN caused the logistical slipups in the campaign's opening days. Vazquez Mota has also struggled to reconcile voters' desire for change with the baggage of the ruling party's two consecutive presidential terms, in particular the offensive against drug cartels many blame for unleashing violence that has claimed more than 47,000 lives over the past six years.
She picked the single word "Different" as her slogan, then pulled veterans of Calderon's administration into her campaign after it ran into trouble. At some events, she has been confronted by voters angry about her party's past actions — run-ins broadcast over and over on TV.
"It seems to me that the fundamental problem is an identity crisis and that Josefina Vazquez Mota simply reflects that the party has lost the idea of what it's trying to achieve," said Jesus Silva-Herzog Marquez, a newspaper columnist and law professor who has closely followed her career and the PAN's fortunes.
Fox compares the party's strategy to a poorly trained athlete trying to compete in the Olympics.
"I believe in miracles," he said at a Wednesday meeting with foreign correspondents. "Sometimes you can flip a tortilla. But days are running out and I see fewer chances for a miracle to happen."
While hesitating to blame sexism for her poor poll numbers, Vazquez Mota said in the AP interview that gender has played a role in her troubles. She said she's been asked if she could serve as commander in chief while suffering from menstrual cramps, or have the strength to take on criminals.