By Dave Graham and Miguel Angel Gutierrez
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - A leading presidential candidate of Mexico's ruling party said on Wednesday he would break with government policy and withdraw the army from the fight against drug gangs if he wins the election in 2012.
Santiago Creel, a former interior minister belonging to the conservative National Action Party (PAN), told Reuters that President Felipe Calderon's military strategy had served its course and that he would change "everything" as leader.
"The direct, frontal, expansive strategy is a strategy that should end with this administration," said Creel, who is seeking the PAN's nomination for the presidency.
Deaths from drug-related violence in Mexico have surged since Calderon sent in the army to fight the cartels when he took office in December 2006, damaging support for his party and causing strains in relations with the United States.
Calderon has endured withering criticism from victims of the drug war and opposition lawmakers for his U.S.-backed military approach but he has stood firm, arguing the cartels would have become too powerful if he had not acted.
More than 44,000 people have died in the conflict to date, and Creel said that if elected in the July vote, he would start taking the Mexican army off the streets as soon as he took office in December 2012.
"By my calculations this would be a period of transition of around 24 months," said the 56-year-old Creel, a descendant of a U.S. immigrant to Mexico of Scottish origin.
Instead, he said priority should be given to attacking cartels' revenue streams, cracking down on money laundering and cleaning up Mexico's prisons, where top criminals are often able to continue running their crime gangs on the outside.
Creel, who also sought the PAN's candidacy for the 2006 election, was an early front runner this time, though some recent surveys have shown former education minister Josefina Vazquez Mota could be overtaking him.
Opinion polls also show the PAN trailing the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which ruled Mexico for seven decades until 2000.
If the PRI won the election, it would be a serious setback for Latin America's second biggest economy, said Creel.
"People are going to think hard about what returning to the past means, returning to this model ... of agreements or shady deals with criminals," he said.
Calderon also said earlier this month that some in the PRI could consider making deals with organized crime, a practice the party's opponents say was widespread in Mexico in the past.
(Editing by Kieran Murray)