- Josefina Vazquez Mota will compete in the July 1 election
- Being a woman is a "competitive advantage," she says
- The former education secretary and congresswoman faces a tough political battle
- Mexico's president has been mired in a controversial war on drug cartels
Mexico's conservative ruling party has picked a former congresswoman as its nominee for the nation's top job. If she wins, she would become the country's first female president.
Sunday's decision by the National Action Party marks the first time one of Mexico's three major political parties has tapped a woman for the presidential race.
"It opens up the possibility of a very high-profile, close contest," said Mireille Roccatti, a professor at Mexico's Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education.
Vazquez Mota, 51, told CNN en Español last year that her gender gives her an edge.
"To me, being a woman is a very important competitive advantage in my country ... but not only because there are more (female) voters. Because in this country, like in the majority of the world's countries, we have worked hard, we have made an effort, because nobody has given us anything," she said.
She has emphasized her desire to be Mexico's first female president, and pointed to her qualifications for the job.
"I do not want to be president because I am a woman. Being a woman is important, but it's not the most important. I want to be president because we have the talent and the platform and the vision of a Mexico that we want for all Mexicans, not only for a select few," she told CNN en Español.
Before her political career took off, Vazquez Mota studied economics and made a living with self-help lectures and a bestselling book, "God, Please Make Me a Widow: The Challenge of Being Yourself."
She was Mexico's first female secretary of social development when then-President Vicente Fox named her to that Cabinet post in 2000. In 2006, she became the nation's first female education secretary under President Felipe Calderon.
She later served as federal congresswoman for two years before stepping aside in September 2011 to focus on her presidential bid.
Vazquez Mota told supporters Sunday that she is confident and ready to face off against Enrique Pena Nieto, whose Institutional Revolutionary Party ruled Mexico for seven decades, until 2000.
"Today the internal strife ends and we will start a new path to defeat the true adversary of Mexico, who represents authoritarianism and the worst of antidemocratic practices," Vazquez Mota said.
But with a controversial drug war raging and a sluggish economy, the former congresswoman faces a tough political battle leading up to the July 1 presidential election.
"Congratulations and welcome to the democratic contest @JosefinaVM. Let it be for the good of Mexico," Pena Nieto said in a tweet directed at Vazquez Mota after the National Action Party selected her on Sunday.
"Thank you. Let it be for the citizens," Vazquez Mota replied.
Pena Nieto, the former governor of Mexico's most populous state, is leading in polls, but he isn't her only opponent. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, a former mayor of Mexico City who lost the presidency in a disputed vote in 2006, is vying for the job once again as a candidate for the leftist Democratic Revolution Party.
In a January poll by Mexico's Consulta Mitofsky, 41 percent of voters backed Pena Nieto, 23 percent supported Vazquez Mota and 18 percent supported Lopez Obrador. But 18 percent of those polled hadn't made up their minds. The survey of 1,000 voters had a margin of error of 3.1 percentage points.
Calderon, who won the presidency in 2006, has been mired in a controversial war on drug cartels in which more than 47,000 people have been killed since he took office, according to Mexican government statistics.
By law, he cannot run again.
Vazquez Mota said Sunday that she is grateful to Calderon for his leadership.
"With valor and decisiveness he has faced organized crime and has worked tirelessly for the security of our families. ... I am proud of what he has built for Mexico, and the best way to demonstrate my loyalty will be to become the first female president of Mexico on July 1," she said.