Mexico’s drug war has cost 50,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006, and when voters go to the polls to elect a new leader July 1, that dreadful figure may cost his party the presidency.

Ever-expanding violence and insecurity have left many Mexicans desperate for a leader who can stem the killings and pacify the gangsters. But public frustration has not translated into a substantive policy debate about how to change course, and political analysts say whoever succeeds Calderon will probably continue fighting the cartels in similar fashion — by working closely with the United States and relying heavily on the Mexican military.

“The majority of Mexicans want a change in strategy, but it’s more of a gut feeling that they want something different than a clear sense of what to do,” said independent pollster Jorge Buendia.

In surveys, security and job creation are consistently the two most important issues cited by respondents, Buendia said, but so far the presidential candidates have generally avoided the issues. “Reporters don’t ask, and they never move beyond generalities,” he said.

When pressed for specifics, the candidates tend to offer airy platitudes instead.

Even the candidate projected to benefit most from Calderon’s struggles — Enrique Pena Nieto, nominee of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) — has avoided staking out firm positions on security issues.

Pena Nieto has criticized Calderon as not having a “clear” diagnosis before launching a “hasty” offensive against the cartels, and he said he was in favor of withdrawing Mexican troops from city streets — but gradually, with no timetable.

“I’ve been the first to recognize that the federal government’s decision to take a tough stand and use the army against organized crime was the best option at the time, since the state has an irrefutable obligation to guarantee the security of the people,” he said in a recent speech.

Limited options

The presidential vote is set for July 1, but Mexico’s campaign season will not be in full swing until next month. For now, contenders are still technically considered “pre-candidates,” barred from spending and stumping as official nominees. But for all practical purposes, a three-way presidential contest is well underway.

The PRI has placed its hopes for a comeback on Pena Nieto, the telegenic former governor of the state of Mexico, the country’s most populous. For months he has held a double-digit lead over potential rivals in polls, but his momentum has been slowed by stumbles and by insinuations from opponents — and Calderon — that his party will go soft on the traffickers.

A Pena Nieto victory would return his party to an office it lost in 2000 after ruling for 71 years through an extensive network of patronage, corruption and Mexican-style machine politics. But Pena Nieto is not seen as a shoo-in.

Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the former Mexico City mayor, will run against him as the candidate of the left-leaning Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). Lopez Obrador lost to Calderon in 2006 by such a narrow margin that he refused to accept the results and spent more than a year calling himself “Mexico’s legitimate president.” He remains rock-star popular with many of Mexico’s poor.

More than any candidate in the race, Lopez Obrador has made an issue of the Mexican government’s drug war strategy. He promises to send the military back to its barracks within six months of taking office and to focus instead on the underlying social causes of rampant criminal violence.

Analysts say that’s not necessarily the policy shift Mexican voters are looking for, but options are limited. A new president could push for the elimination of low-paid local-level police departments — ripe targets for cartel recruitment — in favor of state-level forces. The country's law enforcement and security bureaucracies could be consolidated under a single crime-fighting agency. And a new president could decide to give the Drug Enforcement Administration and other U.S. agencies more latitude to operate in Mexico, or less.

“Everyone knows the current strategy of taking the cartels head-on is not working,” said Karen Hooper, a Latin America policy expert at Statfor, the Texas-based security-analysis firm. “But I don’t see advocating a pullback of the military as a winning strategy — either rhetorically or as a policy proposal.”

Risk of tainted election

Today about 50,000 Mexican soldiers and marines, sporting full body armor and machine guns, patrol the country’s highways and urban neighborhoods. Despite allegations of human rights abuses, the Mexican military remains one of the country’s best-regarded institutions, analysts say, and in some places, it’s the only public security force standing between relative order and criminal chaos.

Because Mexican presidents are limited to a single, six-year term, Calderon is ineligible for reelection. His National Action Party (PAN) has nominated former education secretary Josefina Vazquez Mota, who pledges to press ahead with Calderon’s fight and to up the ante by threatening lifetime prison sentences for politicians and public officials caught working for the cartels.

But she too has repeatedly ducked requests for more detailed proposals, while running television advertisements warning voters against choosing politicians with ties to organized crime — a not-so-subtle dig at Pena Nieto as the PRI candidate.

Mexican campaign regulators have warned that this year’s election is more at risk of being tainted by dirty drug money than any previous contest, while PRI party leaders have accused Calderon of sending federal investigators to carry out a “witch hunt” and a “dirty war” against them.

Federal prosecutors announced Jan. 31 that they are investigating former officials in the border state of Tamaulipas, including three former PRI governors. A few days earlier, a state official from the PRI-controlled state of Veracruz was found carrying $1.9 million in cash at a Mexico City area airport, and the party’s opponents quickly alleged that the money was part of a secret campaign slush fund for Pena Nieto.

Still, analysts say Pena Nieto might benefit from the perception that Calderon’s failure hasn’t been one of policy but party affiliation. Because PRI governors control 20 of Mexico’s 31 states, voters may think that Pena Nieto could adopt a similar military strategy but carry it out more effectively by closing ranks among state-level officials.

And he’s so far ahead in the polls that there’s little incentive to lay out specific policy proposals at this stage, said George Grayson, a Mexico scholar at Virginia’s College of William and Mary. “Pena Nieto is in a glide pattern right now,” Grayson said.

If Pena Nieto does win the presidency, Grayson said, he will probably enhance Mexico’s cooperation with the United States, despite rumblings from some in his party who have attacked Calderon for allowing an expanded U.S. military and intelligence presence inside Mexico.

“He’ll follow Calderon’s example,” Grayson said. “One, because he’s smart, but also because he doesn’t have a toxic sense of nationalism.”