Mexico's former ruling party Sunday had a strong lead in northern Coahuila state's gubernatorial race, the last state election before next summer's presidential poll.
With nearly 20 percent of the vote counted late Sunday, Humberto Moreira had 57 percent of the vote, compared to 35 percent for Jorge Zermeno, a 56-year-old lawyer and senator running with President Vicente Fox's National Action Party.
A victory by Moreira would serve as another boost for his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, which controlled Mexico's presidency from 1929 until losing to Fox in 2000.
The PRI has already shown resilience this year, capturing four of the six gubernatorial elections before Sunday, and it has held power in Coahuila since its inception in 1929.
A win by Moreira in this northern industrial state does not guarantee the PRI's return to the presidency, however. Its two potential presidential candidates trail former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD, in most national presidential polls.
Fox is barred by law from seeking a second, six-year term, and his party's likely candidates are also trailing as the presidential campaign heats up.
A former elementary school teacher, the 39-year-old Moreira stepped down as mayor of Saltillo, the state capital, earlier this year to seek the governor's office. He has pledged to improve infrastructure and the education system in a state that's home to 2.3 million people.
"Our strength in the polls is clear," said Moreira, who arrived at a local teacher's academy with his wife and two young children to cast his vote.
Zermeno, who lagged well behind Moreira in pre-election polls, promised to create jobs and install a more-professional state police force. Three other candidates are expected to compete for third place.
Considered quieter than many of its neighboring states on the U.S.-Mexico border, Coahuila has not been plagued by excessive drug related violence and unsolved murders common elsewhere.
It shares a 315-mile (510-kilometer) border with the United States. Like much of northern Mexico, its economy relies largely on assembly-for-export plants, or maquiladoras. Unemployment, however, continues to be one of the main issues for the third-largest state in Mexico.
Jose Gerardo Ortega, a 49-year-old security guard at a General Motors plant in Saltillo, said he voted for Moreira because he's the only candidate likely to create new jobs and secure higher salaries for those already working.
"We have a lot of people living in poverty," said Ortega. "There's too much unemployment.", AP reported.