Eruviel Avila hardly behaved like a candidate with a 30-point lead heading into Sunday's vote for the governor of Mexico state, a post his party has never lost in more than 80 years.
The plain, slightly paunchy 42-year-old campaigned from morning till night, promising to eliminate the vehicle tax to benefit cab and bus drivers, wooing support from the powerful political party of the teachers and spending what one national newspaper said was more per day than Felipe Calderon did to win the presidency in 2006.
That's because so much more is at stake. Avila's Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, needs a commanding victory to create momentum going into the July 2012 national election, where the PRI wants to regain the presidency it lost in 2000 after 71 years of uninterrupted rule.
The front-runner in presidential polls, Enrique Pena Nieto, is the current PRI governor in Mexico's most populous state, which at 15 million people is larger than some Latin American countries and home to the sprawling, impoverished suburbs that surround Mexico City.
Even though Pena Nieto lay low, not even showing up at Avila's closing rally, he is the real candidate in Sunday's vote.
"A narrow margin will embolden the opposition," said Harley Shaiken, director of the University of California, Berkeley, Center for Latin American Studies. "A demanding margin is something the PRI will trumpet and use to get those on the fence to see that the train is leaving the station, and it's best to get on board."
The other two major parties, trailing in the polls and lacking the coalitions that have beat the PRI in other states, also are trying to send a national message _ that a vote for the PRI is a return to the past, when the "dinosaurs" wielded power through coercion, corruption and intimidation.
Avila faces Alejandro Encinas, 57, from the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, which won the presidential vote in the state of Mexico in 2006 despite PRI domination of state and local offices. Trailing third is Luis Felipe Bravo Mena, 58, of Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, which won the presidential vote there in 2000.
Avila is heading into Sunday's vote with the biggest margin for a PRI candidate since 1993, polling near 60 percent with Encinas trailing in the mid-to-high 20s in surveys by the newspapers Reforma and El Universal. Those polls have a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
Avila wouldn't comment on what a victory means for the national race.
But Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, delegate to the PRI's national executive committee, agreed the state is a bellwether.
"We'll find out in this process Mexico's preference," he said.
The PAN and PRD tried early on to form a coalition to defeat the PRI, as they did last year to win the PRI stronghold states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Sinaloa. But the agreement fell apart in Mexico state, and other coalition efforts never got off the ground in two other states, Nayarit and Coahuila, where the PRI is expected to win governorships Sunday.
"We're seeing the same thing this year, only in reverse: Without a coalition, you can't beat the PRI," said Jose Antonio Crespo, a political analyst with Mexico's Center of Investigation and Economic Studies.
The PRI, founded in 1929, ruled for seven decades as the "perfect dictatorship" as Nobel literature laureate Mario Vargas Llosa once called it. The president operated like a monarch, virtually appointing his successor, state governors and the mayor of Mexico City by naming the candidates who faced little electoral opposition.
If they did, the PRI was known for both buying and stealing votes, while more than a few of its leaders left office much richer than when they entered.
But the power base had begun to erode by the late 1980s, when former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari was accused of stealing the election from Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, who left the PRI along with other party members to form what eventually became the PRD. Ten years later, the PRI had lost the majority in Congress. But it wasn't until 2000 that the left and conservatives in Mexico banded together to oust the PRI from the presidency, electing Vicente Fox of the PAN. By 2006, when voters chose Calderon in a photo finish with PRD candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, some politicians were quick to declare the PRI all but dead.
Now voters are weary of the PAN, which after more than a decade in power has failed to make fundamental changes in Mexico apart from a trademark war on organized crime that has caused a spike in violence. Since Calderon took office in late 2006, more than 35,000 people have died in drug violence according to the government. Other sources put the number at more than 40,000.
Meanwhile, internal fighting in the PRD has left the party in disarray.
The PRI, which lost its institutional power but not its national infrastructure, has sprung back in the vacuum with fresh faces such as Avila and Pena Nieto, a Hollywood-handsome politician with furrowed brow and perfectly coifed pampadour that has earned him the tabloid moniker "Gel Boy."
After more than 80 years, the party maintains a strong machine and generations of loyalty.
"My whole family is priista from the heart," said Aracely Herandez Mendoza, 18, of Texcoco, who will cast her first vote for Avila. "I was indoctrinated into the PRI by my grandparents, my parents, my siblings. ... It's in the blood."
Nearly a third of Mexico's registered voters are under age 30, meaning the PRI had lost the presidency by the time they were eligible to vote. But the opposition is using every chance to make sure everyone remembers the regime.
In a commencement speech at Stanford University in California last month, Calderon described his struggles growing up under the PRI, saying it controlled politicians, the media and what could be taught in the schools.
"When students just like yourselves protested, they were massacred," he told the graduates. "Many opponents of the regime were simply disappeared."
The PRI and other political observers accused the Calderon administration of political maneuvering when soldiers arrested former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rhon last month on weapons charges; they said the PAN wanted to remind voters that the old gambling magnate, who the U.S. has accused of having ties to organized crime, comes from the same faction of the PRI that supports Pena Nieto. After the arrest, Mexican media was filled with images of the two together.
Hank Rhon was later released for lack of evidence.
The PRD and the PAN have filed complaints with the national election tribunal alleging Avila extended his spending and campaigning beyond the legal limits and that state election officials, who are appointed by the governor and approved by the state legislators, did nothing.
The tribunal responded to one complaint Wednesday, ruling that Avila campaigned before the official start of the race and ordering state elections officials to issue a fine, which they set at 26,900 pesos, about $2,300.
The newspaper Reforma reported last month that Avila's campaign spent nearly 4.4 million pesos a day ($376,000) to Calderon's 3.4 million ($290,000) to win the presidency. The campaign didn't respond to questions about spending from the AP.
Still, the elections Sunday and next year are the PRI's to lose.
"They haven't changed organically or structurally. They still think and act like the old PRI," Crespo said. "But people are willing to vote for them, even without the democratic changes."
Associated Press writers Gloria Perez in Toluca, Mexico, and E. Eduardo Castillo in Mexico City contributed to this report.