By Anahi Rama
GUADALAJARA, Mexico (Reuters) - Women shout and jostle to get close to Enrique Pena Nieto, mob him for kisses or a hug, and snap photographs with the kind of excitement more commonly reserved for teenage heartthrobs than Mexican presidential candidates.
The 45-year-old Pena Nieto, candidate for the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is favorite to win Mexico's July 1 presidential election, which for the first time will feature a woman as one of Mexico's main contenders.
Women make up a majority of eligible voters, but despite being traditionally sidelined in Mexican politics, they have failed to warm to the only female candidate - Josefina Vazquez Mota of President Felipe Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
In this strongly Roman Catholic nation, support for the petite 51-year-old mother of three lags far behind that for the telegenic Pena Nieto, who cheated on his first wife and had two children out of wedlock, later marrying a soap-opera star.
Women are more likely to back Pena Nieto than Vazquez Mota by a ratio of eight to five, data from pollster Mitofsky showed this week. Men support the PRI candidate over his female rival by a factor of just over two to one.
Both sexes believe Pena Nieto is more likely to quell the brutal turf wars between drug gangs and the state which have killed more than 50,000 people in five years, and create more jobs for the country's growing population.
And the fact he is good-looking does no harm either.
"I like the way he expresses himself, how he talks and the projects he has," said Margarita Zuniga, a 43-year-old local government worker in Mexico's second city Guadalajara. "And he is so adorable! You can't deny it," she added, giggling.
Zuniga's response is typical of Pene Nieto's female backers, who have helped him neutralize what analysts agree could be one of Vazquez Mota's biggest selling points, her gender.
Polls show Vazquez Mota has more women supporters than men, but not nearly enough to close the lead Pena Nieto has of more than 20 points, according to pollster BGC's latest survey.
FLUBS AND MISHAPS
After winning the governorship of the State of Mexico in 2005, Pena Nieto's ready smile, boyish complexion and impeccably coiffed hair began beaming into Mexican homes with the aid of the country's biggest broadcaster Televisa, where his glamorous second wife, whom he married in 2010, was once under contract.
That wedding after the death of his first wife in 2007 was marketed as a fairytale event that helped gild the image of a successful young politician destined for greatness.
Despite the revelations in January that he had fathered two children behind the back of his first wife, and a string of gaffes, including his widely mocked struggle to name correctly a single book that had influenced him, his popularity is undimmed.
Vazquez Mota, on the other hand, has been damaged by PAN infighting and discontent with the government, as well as by a campaign that has made too many headlines for its flubs and mishaps and not enough for her vision of the future.
She has had trouble framing her bid in the mold of Latin American women presidents like Brazil's Dilma Rousseff and Cristina Fernandez in Argentina who took power as leaders of stature. One poll published on Thursday night even put her in third place behind 2006 runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.
A former minister of social development during the first PAN administration of President Vicente Fox, Vazquez Mota later served as education minister under his successor Calderon and then led her party in the lower house of congress.
But her profile remained low compared to Pena Nieto, whose productive relationship with Televisa helped him forge a reputation for delivering on pledges during his six-year rule in the State of Mexico, the country's most populous region.
Though women have had few role models to celebrate in Mexican politics, some analysts say Vazquez Mota has been too shy about courting females, who account for 52 percent of total population.
She has talked about being a mother and devoted wife and wrote a self-help book called "God, Please Make Me A Widow," where she encouraged girls to break free of stereotypes.
Yet despite trumpeting her as a skirt-wearing president who will "wear the pants", her campaign's feminist message lacks depth, said Mexican political analyst Fernando Dworak.
"She hasn't talked openly about gender equality, or reproductive rights," he said. "Images of Pena Nieto hugging all the women in town weigh a lot more for the female vote than empty talk. The alpha male is preferred over the weak feminist."
During his State of Mexico campaign, chants of "Enrique! Cutie! We are with you all the way to bed!" used to ring out for Pena Nieto, who has now been immortalized as a toy doll now on sale with plastic pompadour resembling Ken - Barbie's boyfriend.
And he is not afraid to exploit his physical charms in a country where soap operas dominate the TV ratings.
"Pena Nieto has the ability to seduce both men and woman," said Alberto Tavira, author of "The Women of Pena Nieto," an expose of the candidate's love life. "He has that gift which he's developed and maximized with a lot of coaching."
Jeers that Pena Nieto is an intellectual lightweight lacking in substance have had little impact. Meanwhile the former columnist Vazquez Mota is still battling social conservatism in Mexico, where women only won the right to vote in 1953.
A 2010 national survey on discrimination showed two in five women still ask their husbands permission to go out alone at night and two-thirds suffer from some kind of domestic violence.
"Working class Mexican women hardly are liberated," said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political scientist at Columbia University, noting that opportunities for women are largely limited to those from the top end of society.
"(Vazquez Mota's candidacy) is an important step but her being a woman is not going to be a definitive factor by any means."
More and more women are coming through the ranks of Mexican politics, where a 2008 rule decreed that 40 percent of congressional lawmakers must be women - even if it has often been skirted.
Two of the three main candidates running for mayor of Mexico City this summer are women, and Calderon recently said his wife Margarita Zavala might make for a potential president in 2018.
But women still have a lot of catching up to do.
Since the PRI consolidated the Mexican Revolution and began 71 years of unbroken rule in 1929, more than 700 politicians have served as state governors or mayors of Mexico City.
Only six of them have been women.
And Vazquez Mota's lack of experience is a problem, said Sarai Anievas, a 26-year-old officer worker in the capital.
"Pena Nieto has been a politician all his life. You know what you're getting, because the State of Mexico is a big place to govern," she said. "Josefina hasn't been a governor."
(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg; Editing by Dave Graham and David Brunnstrom)
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