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RULING PARTY COURTS THE FEMALE VOTE

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Facing perhaps its toughest elections challenge in 65 years of power, Mexico's ruling party is campaigning harder than ever to reach a long-overlooked group of voters: women.

Steeped in machismo, the Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, counts few women in top government echelons, and some question whether that will change if the party wins again.Nevertheless, the PRI's presidential candidate, Ernesto Zedillo, is courting the women's vote more aggressively than any of his predecessors - or his two main opponents in the Aug. 21 election.

In messages recalling 1992's "Year of the Woman" campaign in the United States, Zedillo is running TV ads promoting the dignity of women, while PRI banners trumpet equality for working women.

"We women are gaining ground," said Bertha Delia Garcia, a schoolteacher and PRI activist from Matamoros.

"I believe that Zedillo has taken notice that women are a great support. And because of this, his campaign is focused on the women's vote."

Zedillo, a 42-year-old economist untested in electoral politics, has made high-profile appearances before women's groups.

He has promised to fight for gender equality and tougher laws against rapists and abusers of women.

"You make up half of our society; you are at the center of family life, and you are the guardians of our values," Zedillo told a women's rally in Tepic.

"Our campaign has listened to the peasant women, to the working women and to the housewife. Next August 21st, with the support of millions of women compatriots, I am going to win the election, and I will be your president."

The PRI has kept a lock on power since its founding in 1929. It has outmaneuvered, outspent and sometimes outcheated rival parties.

This time, however, the party is under intense pressure to hold fair elections, making every vote count.

"They are working really hard, and they are really scared, so they are going after every angle they can," said Gary Mounce, a political scientist at the University of Texas-Pan American, who will observe the vote.

But the campaign's focus on women may not translate into a dramatic policy shift if the party wins once again, Mounce said.

"The PRI has always been good about paying lip service to the various sectors of society," he said. "But if you look at a picture of the congress and the PRI, there's a sea of men."

Victoria Rodriguez, political science professor at the University of Texas' Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, said women largely have supported the PRI since they gained the right to vote in 1954.

"I think it's going to carry a tremendous amount of weight, more so this time than any other past election," she said.

Zedillo's two main rivals - Diego Fernandez de Cevallos of the center-right National Action Party and Cuauhtemoc Cardenas of the leftist Democratic Revolutionary Party - have campaigned less actively for the women's vote, Rodriguez said.

Two women are among the six other presidential candidates, all from minor parties: Cecilia Soto Gonzalez, 44, of the Worker's Party, and Marcela Lombardo Otero, 68, of the tiny Popular Socialist Party.

Surrounded by Zedillo posters at the PRI headquarters in Matamoros, Garcia predicted that greater numbers of women will enter Mexican politics.

"Women are the best propaganda of any political party because we have influence in the family," she said. "We speak out in the house, in the schools, in the markets."