By Dave Graham
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The threat of losing power to a fierce leftwing rival next year is tempting Mexico's ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) to enlist outside help for the first time in its nine-decade history.
Corruption scandals, sluggish growth, failure to curb gang violence and persistent allegations of electoral fraud have seriously eroded the centrist party's already rocky reputation ahead of the July 2018 presidential election.
That has opened the door to Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a leftist former mayor of Mexico City and twice runner-up for the presidency who has set the early pace with a relentless campaign against government corruption.
The PRI's presidential hopefuls can begin registering on Dec. 3 and many officials believe Jose Antonio Meade, currently finance minister, will be chosen in a bid to detoxify its brand.
A fixture in the Cabinet across two rival administrations, Meade has no formal party affiliation and has distinguished himself as a discreet and diplomatic public servant with a grasp of finance and economics matched by few in Mexico.
More importantly, he has avoided the damaging scandals that have engulfed the PRI under President Enrique Pena Nieto, who cannot seek a second six-year term.
Heriberto Galindo, a senior PRI politician, said Meade's probity and economic savvy make him an ideal choice at a time of nagging uncertainty for Mexico due to U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to ditch the NAFTA trade deal.
"The Mexican public's main social concerns are corruption and impunity, and Jose Antonio Meade has a reputation for being honorable and honest, and he is honorable and honest," Galindo said. "That's why I think he should be the candidate."
The PRI said on Thursday that the party's candidate would be elected by a national convention on Feb. 18. By then, the candidate may be obvious.
Nearly a dozen PRI lawmakers, serving or former government officials consulted by Reuters said they believed Meade would most likely be chosen, pointing to his cross-party appeal.
None forecast it would be the most prominent PRI contender, Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, who has failed to tame gang violence and was pilloried for the 2015 jail break of kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.
Meade has been coy about whether he wants the presidency, and some PRI grandees caution the party might spring a surprise.
Education Minister Aurelio Nuno, 39, Pena Nieto's former chief of staff and one of his closest allies, as well as health minister Jose Narro, are viewed as the most likely alternatives.
Speculation over Meade intensified when the PRI changed its statutes in August to make it easier for outsiders to run, but Pena Nieto has sought to dispel talk of the finance minister.
Polls show he would have work to do. Meade is not widely recognized by the public, and one survey this week by polling firm Buendia & Laredo put him 14 percentage points behind Lopez Obrador in a match-up with a third leading contender.
However, PRI officials supportive of Meade believe he could persuade enough Mexicans opposed to Lopez Obrador to cast a so-called "voto util" (useful vote) and win.
Much of that calculus, they argue, rests on Meade's ties to the center-right National Action Party (PAN), which ruled Mexico from 2000 to 2012 and has fought bitterly with Lopez Obrador.
Entering government bureaucracy in the 1990s, Meade was by 2011 minister for energy, and later that year, finance.
Many PAN lawmakers speak warmly of him and say that if the 2018 race became a choice between Lopez Obrador and Meade, they could back the latter.
Yet the fact the PRI is considering somebody from outside its ranks shows the extent of the party's troubles, said Ernesto Cordero, a PAN senator who preceded Meade as finance minister.
An October study by pollster Mitofsky showed that while the PRI slightly lagged the PAN and Lopez Obrador's MORENA party in terms of active support - backed by about 18 percent of voters - it was easily the most unpopular, rejected by over half.
"In strategic terms, the PRI needs a candidate that can say his hands are clean," Cordero said.
Pena Nieto made Meade foreign minister in 2012 before he eventually returned to the finance ministry last year, making him, at 48, the most experienced Cabinet member in government.
Expectations that the PRI could soon pass the torch to Meade were heightened on Wednesday when Pena Nieto's top aide, foreign minister Luis Videgaray, described the Yale-educated economist in glowing terms at an event.
"Under the leadership of Jose Antonio Meade, Mexico today has a direction, stability and has clarity in its decision-making on economic policy," Videgaray said.
However, on Thursday Pena Nieto attempted to knock down the impression Videgaray's words had created.
"Don't be fooled," he told reporters. "The PRI doesn't choose its candidate on the basis of praise or applause."
(Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Noe Torres; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Dan Grebler)