By Anahi Rama
GUADALAJARA, Mexico (Reuters) - Mexican presidential front-runner Enrique Pena Nieto vowed to subdue the violence engulfing his country as the campaign for the July 1 election kicked off with the ruling conservatives struggling to hold onto power.
Pena Nieto, of the opposition Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), is the hot favorite to succeed President Felipe Calderon, whose term in office has been dominated by the government's struggle to bring brutal drug cartels to heel.
Addressing a crowd of around 30,000 supporters in the western city of Guadalajara after midnight, Pena Nieto promised to restore peace in Mexico and end the criminal violence that has claimed over 50,000 lives in the last five years.
"We're starting a campaign to win the presidency of the republic, but more importantly, we're starting a movement to wake up minds to change Mexico," he said in a square in the old colonial part of Mexico's second city.
"Mexico has been wounded by the lawlessness and violence," Pena Nieto added, dressed simply in a white shirt and dark trousers. "Many people's lives are afflicted by worry, and what's worse, they're living in fear."
Calderon's conservative National Action Party, or PAN, has been battered by the bloody clashes between drug cartels and security forces, and its failure to reduce the number of poor and create enough jobs for Mexico's growing population.
Roughly half of the country lives in poverty, which is blamed for fuelling the violence that has rattled tourists and investors on Calderon's watch.
Calderon, who is barred by law from seeking a second term, staked his reputation on defeating the drug-trafficking gangs, but his army-led offensive has only led to more murders, kidnappings and robberies.
Drug-related murders leaped from 2,826 in 2007 - Calderon's first full year in office - to 15,273 in 2010, and by another 11 percent in the first nine months of 2011, government data shows.
For more than two years, the race to succeed Calderon has been led by the 45-year-old Pena Nieto, who was governor of the State of Mexico next to the capital between 2005 and 2011. Pena Nieto said he would lift 15 million people out of poverty, improve education and triple economic growth to create jobs.
"We need someone who really knows how to govern, and he is someone who can," said social worker Graciela Gonzalez.
His cause has been aided by voter fatigue with the PAN, which has failed to live up to the high hopes Mexicans had when the party in 2000 ended 71 years of often corrupt PRI rule.
PAN: NO DEALS WITH CRIME
Poll after poll has given Pena Nieto a double digit lead over PAN rival Josefina Vazquez Mota, despite a string of gaffes and the revelation in January that he had cheated on his first wife and fathered two children out of wedlock.
Vazquez Mota, the first woman to be nominated for the presidency by one of Mexico's three main political parties, also kicked off her campaign at midnight, in Mexico City. Addressing a much smaller rally at PAN campaign headquarters, the petite Vazquez Mota pledged to continue the party's firm line on crime.
"For me there's no option. Negotiating or making deals with criminals is criminal itself. I'm not going to make deals with criminals," she said, playing upon PAN claims that the PRI has in the past forged accords with gangsters to keep the peace.
And there would be no return to the past, she added.
"We won't be subject to authoritarianism again. We won't accept a Mexico of corruption and impunity again," she said.
Yet the PAN, a party once renowned for its disciplined, united front in presidential campaigns has been rocked by in-fighting and scandal, damaging her bid.
Pena Nieto's other main adversary, the 2006 runner-up Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is campaigning hard again for the top job after claiming he was robbed by Calderon six years ago.
But the fiery leftist alienated many former supporters with massive street protests he launched in the capital after that close result, and he trails in third place.
Holding a brief news conference early on Friday, Lopez Obrador dismissed the polls as "media propaganda" and insisted only his campaign represented the possibility of real change. Pena Nieto he dismissed as "corruption incarnate."
Pena Nieto's choice of Guadalajara to launch his campaign was no coincidence: the city is famed as the home of Mariachi musicians and is the capital of Jalisco state where tequila comes from, a potent symbol of all things Mexican.
Jalisco is also the most populous state governed by the PAN and one of only three where the party has had held power continuously for over 15 years. Pena Nieto was sworn in as PRI candidate in one of the other two PAN strongholds, Guanajuato.
Federico Berrueto, director general of polling firm Gabinete de Comunicacion Estrategica (GCE), said the choice of locations showed the PRI was taking the fight to the PAN in its own back yard in the hope of not just winning, but winning big.
Roberto Ramos, a 20-year-old business student, one of around 20 million voters who were too young to vote when the PRI was last in power, said a vote for the party was a vote for change.
"All politicians are thieves but at least the PRI can bring order to the country. The PAN government is too weak," he said in Pena Nieto's home turf, the State of Mexico.
Fueled by a string of state election victories and Pena Nieto's commanding poll lead, PRI leaders hope the party can secure enough seats in congress to form the first majority in 15 years, improving its chances of passing quick reforms.
The PAN, on the other hand, is struggling to hold itself together. This week, the party lurched into a fresh row when a leaked recording emerged appearing to show Vazquez Mota accusing the government of bugging her phone calls.
Pena Nieto's job is being made easier by the fact Vazquez Mota does not appear to have the full backing of Calderon, whose influence on the PAN's internal election process has undermined her standing as the party's candidate, said Berrueto of GCE.
"If you'd asked me a month-and-a-half, two months ago if she could win, I'd have said she had a chance, but if you asked me now, I'd say her hopes are very slim," he added.
(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Mica Rosenberg in Mexico City; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Philip Barbara)