Calderon received about 44 percent of the votes in Mexico

Three former secretaries in President Vicente Fox's Cabinet vied Sunday to become the ruling National Action Party's presidential candidate in 2006 elections.

Former Energy Secretary Felipe Calderon led in early results an hour after polls closed, in the first of three regional votes to select a National Action candidate. Fox is prohibited by law from seeking a second term. With ballots counted from about 40 percent of voting stations, Calderon received about 44 percent of the votes, party officials reported.

Former Interior Minister Santiago Creel had 38 percent of votes counted, and former Environment Secretary Alberto received about 18 percent. Creel had led preference among party members for months. But Calderon gained ground in public opinion polls after a strong performance televised debates last week.

The voting kicked off the primary season among Mexico's three major political parties, which must register their candidates by January. During 71 years of uninterrupted power, which ended with Fox's historic victory in 2000, Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, presidents hand-picked their successors behind closed doors and the party conducted elections often marred by fraud.

This year, political parties already were tossing and turning over whom to back. Members of the National Action Party, or PAN, across 10 Mexican states, including Nuevo Leon, of which Monterrey is the capital, took part in Sunday's vote. The second vote is Oct. 2, and the third is Oct. 23. An estimated 1.1 million party members were eligible to participate in the three elections.

The winner will face the candidates of the PRI, which remains Mexico's largest party, and the leftist Democratic Revolution Party, or PRD. Former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the PRD leads all polls ahead of the presidential election and was expected to receive the party's nomination Sep. 18 without contest.

Two people were seeking the candidacy of the PRI. Former Mexico state governor Arturo Montiel and former PRI party president Roberto Madrazo were scheduled to face off in a primary Oct. 30. If no candidate obtains 50 percent plus one vote in the first phase a second round will be held Nov. 6 between the top two contenders, AP reports.

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