By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - If looks alone decided Mexican presidential elections, front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto could take the next nine months off and win at a stroll.
Regularly voted Mexico's most handsome politician, Pena Nieto has no clear policy agenda and rarely talks about his plans, prompting accusations he is all show and no substance: a "meringue" cooked up by the media, as one opponent put it.
But with impeccable political connections and a huge lead in opinion polls, the election next July is already Pena Nieto's to lose.
Always immaculately turned out with his black hair parted neatly on the left, the youthful State of Mexico governor carries the hopes of a faction that ruled Mexico for decades until it was ousted in 2000: the centrist Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
The 45-year-old's term as governor will end on Thursday, turning up public scrutiny over his presidential ambitions and exposing him to the full force of attacks by opponents.
Pena Nieto has yet to formally declare his candidacy, but the PRI has already created a massive support base for him.
Although the PRI was widely reviled as authoritarian and corrupt by the time its 71-year-rule ended, Pena Nieto has tapped into growing disenchantment over the two conservative governments that have ruled Mexico since 2000, targeting their failure to establish order and tackle rampant inequality.
Blending the sort of rhetoric favored by U.S. President Barack Obama in the 2008 election with a message that the PRI are Mexico's natural rulers, Pena Nieto has used his six years in office as governor to portray the behemoth as a party reborn.
"Our generation has a huge task ahead of it: to end fear and renew hope," Pena Nieto said last week, days after one of the worst massacres of civilians in the country's brutal drug war. "We need a new direction and vision for the country."
Pena Nieto has so far given almost no indication of what that vision will encompass. He gives few interviews and has repeatedly ignored rivals' challenges to debate publicly.
LEAST BAD OPTION
Despite widespread cynicism over the prospects for change in Mexico -- even in Pena Nieto's home state, where 15 million Mexicans live -- voters still put their faith in him.
"He's done a good job here, spending money on public works and education," said Raul Garcia, 58, from Naucalpan in the State of Mexico. "Pena Nieto is the least bad option going."
Echoing Obama's success in mobilizing voter support, Pena Nieto has notched up more fans on Facebook than all of his main rivals and President Felipe Calderon put together.
Calderon's authority has suffered from the drugs war, which has claimed over 42,000 lives since he took office, denting the popularity of his conservative National Action Party, or PAN.
The war, the government's failure to tackle poverty and a sluggish recovery from recession has dragged the PAN's poll ratings below 20 percent, barely half the level of the PRI.
Support for Pena Nieto as a presidential candidate is stronger still, with a recent survey by pollster Mitofsky giving the lawyer 48 percent support -- good for a lead of 30 percentage points over his two nearest rivals.
But the gap may start to close as Pena Nieto leaves state office, depriving him of a stage he has used to trumpet his achievements and dazzle voters with his good looks and glamorous wife, said political analyst Fernando Dworak.
"This is where it starts to get dangerous for him," said Dworak. "He'll no longer have the protection of his office. We still don't really know who Pena Nieto is or what he thinks."
Critics say Mexico's biggest TV broadcaster Televisa has played a key role in his rapid ascent, offering sympathetic coverage of his carefully managed public appearances.
Rivals have wasted no time to seize upon this.
"He's a meringue made by the Televisa chefs, he's got no substance," said left-wing candidate Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who knows what it's like to lose a big lead in a presidential race. Six years ago, Lopez Obrador was 13 points ahead but his campaign later began to struggle and he narrowly lost the July 2006 election to Calderon.
PAN presidential hopeful and Jalisco state governor Emilio Gonzalez dismissed Pena Nieto as a "fabricated" lightweight.
"People ultimately say 'what I want is someone who improves my life, not a pretty TV face,'" he told daily Excelsior.
Mexicans who say a victory for Pena Nieto would be a step back to the era of corrupt PRI rule point to his alliance with Mexico's most powerful media group.
"If Pena Nieto had a modern outlook, he wouldn't have spent hundreds of millions of pesos on self-publicity. It's criminal. He's one of the old guard: he's worse." said Alejandro Gurza, who runs a Ford dealership in the northern city of Torreon.
Gurza is one of a group of businessmen from the state of Coahuila trying to call to account the local PRI government, which is under investigation for financial malfeasance due to a huge explosion in the state's debt between 2005 and 2011.
Coahuila then was governed by Pena Nieto's ally Humberto Moreira, who became PRI national chairman this year.
With friends like Moreira, Pena Nieto could only be cut from the same cloth, said an angry Gurza.
Corruption watchdog Transparencia Mexicana ranked the State of Mexico the most corrupt entity after the capital last year. In the previous study in 2007, the state topped the list.
Mexicans are apt to take political corruption for granted and it is unclear what damage the Coahuila scandal could do to Pena Nieto, who is no stranger to personal attacks.
When his first wife died suddenly in 2007, rumors of suicide circulated. But he weathered the storm and his second marriage last year to Televisa actress Angelica Rivera, a star of soap operas, or "telenovelas", was a media triumph.
The fairy tale flavor of the church wedding helps explain why Mexicans love Pena Nieto, said Jose Luis Pineyro, a sociologist at Mexico's Autonomous Metropolitan University.
"The media really pushed it," he said. "You had the personal tragedy, the marriage to the divorced woman, both had kids and it played to national values. It's a telenovela."
(Editing by Kieran Murray)