Voters from Mexico's ruling conservative party selected Josefina Vazquez Mota as their first woman presidential candidate on Sunday. (Edgard Garrido /Reuters)

With a decisive primary victory Sunday night, Josefina Vazquez Mota became the first woman to represent a major party in the Mexican presidential election, which backers hope will excite voters weary of the drug violence and political gridlock of her party’s leader, President Felipe Calderon.

Still, even with Vazquez Mota, many Mexicans see the July 1 election as a race among flawed choices: the popular former mayor of Mexico City with a messianic self-regard; a telegenic leading man who wrote a book but has been vague about which books he has read; and a perky, gal-next-door type who does a lot of smiling but has been blank on specifics.

Hard as it might be to believe, many Mexicans are even more cynical than Americans when it comes to their politicians.

“Six years ago, the atmosphere previous to the elections was one of enthusiasm; there were conversations with friends, debates, a combative interest,” said Guadalupe Loaeza, a popular columnist for the Mexican news daily Reforma. “Now, it is the opposite; there is disappointment, hopelessness, weariness, incredulity, distance, uncertainty.”

The Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes referred to this year’s candidates as “small.”

But, hopefully, lively.

For friends north of the border who want to follow the race, here is what Mexicans are saying — in interviews and on editorial pages — about their presidential candidates.

Enrique Peña Nieto

For the past three years, Enrique Peña Nieto, the former governor of the state of Mexico, has been the leading candidate for the Institutional Revolutionary Party and for the presidency.

Peña Nieto, according to the polls, is up by 20 points. But in recent months he has been fumbling the ball.

The candidate with the movie-star looks, who is married to a soap opera star, was asked at the Guadalajara International Book Fair in December what three books have most influenced his life. He stumbled, confused titles and authors, and finally asked his aides for help.

The “oops” moment was widely compared to Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s misstep during a 2011 Republican presidential debate in which he was unable to name the governmental agencies that he said he wanted to eliminate. He subsequently dropped out of the race.

On the popular Internet debate forum of the Mexican news site Political Animal, Javier Garza, editorial director of El Siglo in Torreon, compared Peña Nieto to former U.S. president George W. Bush: “A politician without much content.”

Peña Nieto probably dreams of being a Bush, and not a go-back-to-Texas Perry.

Peña Nieto didn’t help himself when, in an interview with the Spanish newspaper El Pais, he couldn’t recall the price for corn tortillas, seen by ordinary Mexicans as a crucial economic indicator. When he flubbed, he explained that he wasn’t the “lady of the house.”

Yet, as a political observer pointed out, “how dumb can you be with a 20-point lead?”

Andres Manuel
Lopez Obrador

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador was the rock-star populist, pragmatic, lefty mayor of Mexico City who lost the 2006 presidential election by a razor-thin margin to Calderon. “Amlo,” as he is known, threw a fit, declared himself the “legitimate president” of Mexico and blocked the streets of the capital with months of demonstrations.

Suddenly, he wasn’t so popular.

Now, he is back, declaring himself the candidate of “peace and love.”

“The unstable radical pretending to be the voice of reason. Old wine in a new skin,” Duncan Wood, director of international studies at Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, said on Political Animal.

“He really believes that he’s been called to uplift ‘have-nots.’ This makes him a combination of do-gooder and village scold,” said George Grayson, a professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia and author of a book on Lopez Obrador. “Like Jesus, he expects his followers to relentlessly commit themselves to his teachings.”

Josefina Vazquez Mota

The least-well-known candidate is Josefina Vazquez Mota. She served as Calderon’s education minister but tangled with Elba Esther Gordillo, the head of the largest union in Latin America, who controls the perks and patronage of more than 1.5 million teachers.

“Josefina is the one that seems to have a better image thanks to years of work to build her current candidacy. But despite these years she is almost unknown,” said Jose Carreno, a researcher at the Technological Institute of Monterrey.

“She seems to be an intelligent woman who has been presented as a quinceañera doll,” given to 15-year-old girls on their birthdays, said Maria Elena Morera, head of Citizens for a Common Cause, a nonpartisan civic association. At first you like her, then you don’t, said Morera. “She gives the same answers over and over — without losing the smile, of course.”