Whatever voters decide in Sunday's election in the drug violence-plagued state of Michoacan, the party that wins is likely to call it a sign of Mexico's presidential politics to come in 2012.
Luisa Maria "Cocoa" Calderon is running for governor in her family's home state, where her brother, President Felipe Calderon, launched his attack on drug cartels in late 2006.
She promised to advance his offensive and led in most opinion polls going into the election, the last state vote until the presidential contest in July. A victory would boost the morale of her National Action Party, or PAN, which is widely predicted to lose the presidency after a 12-year hold on the post because of voter fatigue with drug violence.
The party has yet to win a governorship in Michoacan, where federal offices and the presidential vote have been dominated by the leftist Revolutionary Democratic Party, or PRD, since 2000. Local offices have been a toss-up between the PRD and the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI.
Calderon faces PRD candidate Silvano Aureoles Conejo and Morelia Mayor Fausto Vallejo Figueroa of the PRI.
The PRI seeks a victory to build momentum for regaining the presidency next year. It lost the presidency to the PAN in 2000 after 71 years of single-party rule. The PRI so far is fielding the most popular pre-candidate in the presidential race, former Mexico state Gov. Enrique Pena Nieto.
"Whoever wins, their party will claim it helps for 2012, especially the current underdogs _ PAN and PRD," said Shannon O'Neil, a Latin America expert for the U.S.-based think tank the Council on Foreign Relations.
The once-dominant PRD is trailing the other two major parties in the Michoacan governor's race, according to the polls. As Michoacan's governing party for a decade, it has been criticized for failing to quell the state's drug violence and some of its legislative candidates are accused of having close ties to drug cartels.
More than 40,000 people have died in drug violence across Mexico during the federal government's five-year offensive, according to many estimates. Calderon's administration hasn't released official figures since nearly a year ago, when it counted 35,000.
While many of Mexico's 32 states have been penetrated by narco-politics, nowhere is that influence as overt as in Michoacan, where the electoral season so far has featured the kidnapping of nine polling firm workers, the gunning down of a mayor, and the withdrawal of at least a dozen candidates frightened off the campaign trail by organized crime.
Julio Cesar Godoy Toscano of the PRD in Michoacan was elected to Congress in 2009 only to turn fugitive after being charged with aiding drug trafficking and money laundering.
Also in 2009, prosecutors ordered the arrest of 12 Michoacan mayors and 23 other state and local officials on allegations they protected the Michoacan-based La Familia cartel. Most were from the PRD. But by April of this year, every one of them had been acquitted. Prosecutors filed a complaint against one judge for improperly acquitting the officials, but mayors say the charges were weak and often based on a single informant.
Michoacan politicians also have worried that violence might mar Sunday's elections following the slaying of Ricardo Guzman, the well-liked mayor of the city of La Piedad. Guzman was shot dead Nov. 2 when he was handing out leaflets for several PAN candidates, including Luisa Maria Calderon.
In addition to picking a governor, Michoacan's voters are electing 40 state legislators and 112 mayors, who have been the target of dozens of drug-related attacks the last two years.