updated 7/3/2005 11:44:10 PM ET 2005-07-04T03:44:10

The party that governed Mexico for seven decades won a crushing victory Sunday in the most important state race before next year’s presidential elections. But another state vote was closer than expected.

Victory in big Mexico State bolsters the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, but it does not guarantee a return to the presidency the party lost in 2000: Its potential candidates all trail Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in the polls.

With 58 percent of the vote counted, the PRI’s Enrique Pena Nieto had 47 percent of the vote to 25 percent for Ruben Mendoza of President Vicente Fox’s National Action Party and 24 percent for Yeidckol Polevnsky of Lopez Obrador’s Democratic Revolution Party.

“It was a clear and strong victory,” Pena Nieto said in a victory speech. He praised Mendoza for telephoning to concede defeat.

But Polevnsky vowed to challenge the election before the courts, alleging the PRI vastly overshot legal spending limits.

Nayarit race closer than expected
While the PRI celebrated in Mexico State, it was in unexpected danger in the small western state of Nayarit, where pre-election polls showed the PRI with a double-digit lead to recapture a state it lost six years ago.

Both the PRI and Democratic Revolution said their own exit polls Sunday showed they had won. Independent exit polls by the two television networks showed the race too close to call.

With 15 percent of Nayarit’s official returns in, the PRI’s Ney Gonzalez led with 46.5 percent to 40.5 for Miguel Angel Navarro of Democratic Revolution and 7 percent for National Action’s Manuel Perez.

The election day was another dose of bad news for Fox’s party, which had run well in Mexico State in earlier elections and which now shares the governorship of Nayarit.

The only other gubernatorial election before the July 2006 national vote is a September race in the mid-sized northern state of Coahuila — where the PRI also is favored to win.

Violence largely avoided
Voting was largely peaceful in Mexico State, where turnout was about 50 percent — but did not include electoral board president Jose Nunez Castaneda, who confessed to reporters he dropped out of a line with 300 people in front of him.

A conflict was avoided in Mexico State’s San Salvador Atenco, where there were violent riots in 2002 against a planned airport. Officials shifted a polling place about 50 yards to avoid a protest by the anti-airport movement.

In Mexico State, whose shape melts around three sides of Mexico City, 38-year-old Nieto has jumped within five years from political obscurity to the verge of one of one of Mexico’s most prominent political jobs.

He does, however, have a political lineage: family ties to at least four past governors of the state. He ran a campaign heavy on promises of public works projects and light on ideology.

Mendoza, 44, hurt himself when he was caught claiming falsely to have had a breakfast with Fox, as well as when he was filmed amid a mob raiding a truck of PRI promotional toys.

Bizarre campaign claims
The Democratic Revolution candidate puzzled many when she acknowledged having changed her name from the very Mexican Citlali Ibanez to something most Mexicans can barely pronounce.

Her campaign, which leaned heavily on the popular Lopez Obrador, was not helped when aides suggested UFOs were buzzing her rallies.

With nearly 15 million people, the State of Mexico includes mammoth suburbs of the capital as well as farm towns, Indian villages and the state capitol, Toluca, a small metropolis of its own.

The PRI’s hold has been tenuous. It lost the 1988 presidential vote in the state and several of its massive cities have been governed by National Action or Democratic Revolution.

An alliance between National Action and Democratic Revolution stole Nayarit’s governorship away from the PRI in 2000 behind breakaway PRI member Antonio Echavarria. But those two parties split three years later and the PRI swept the state congress.

The PRI’s Ney Gonzalez — the charismatic son of a party labor leader — has led in the polls against National Action’s Manuel Perez and Democratic Revolution’s Miguel Angel Navarro — who had resigned as a senator for the PRI to run for the rival party.

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