MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday shifted Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade into a key ministry in a cabinet reshuffle that could provide Meade with a platform to mount a presidential bid in 2018.
Meade, 46, served as finance and energy minister in the previous government and could be an alternative candidate to the man currently expected to lead the ruling party's campaign to replace Peña Nieto in 2018, Manlio Fabio Beltrones.
Meade moves to the Social Development Ministry, an arm of government seen by political insiders as a useful springboard for presidential tilts. The ministry handles welfare spending across Mexico, where about half the population lives in poverty.
He will be replaced as foreign minister by Claudia Ruiz Massieu, previously the tourism minister.
Meade later deflected a question about whether his appointment could push him toward the presidency.
"We're focused on meeting (our) commitments every day, on Friday, tomorrow, this evening," he told Mexican radio.
Peña Nieto kept faith with his two most powerful aides, Finance Minister Luis Videgaray and Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong, even though both have drawn heavy criticism over the struggling economy and embarrassing security lapses.
Now almost half way through his term, Peña Nieto has been under pressure to make changes after a series of scandals in the past year, including the apparent massacre of 43 students last September and the jailbreak of Mexico's most notorious criminal.
The president was also hurt by a controversy over home purchases he, his wife and Videgaray made from major government contractors, dragging his approval ratings to multiyear lows.
Last Friday the auditor Peña Nieto appointed to investigate the deals cleared all three of any wrongdoing.
But the opposition dismissed the findings, which sat awkwardly alongside news the same day that the attorney general in neighboring Guatemala had launched a bid to impeach Guatemalan President Otto Perez for corruption.
Lawmakers in the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) privately expressed dismay over the mishaps. Supporters of Beltrones, a veteran lawmaker recently appointed party chairman, say he will have to shine where the government has failed.
An understated, diplomatic figure, Meade comes from a family with strong ties to the PRI but is also respected in the opposition center-right National Action Party (PAN), having served under the previous president, Felipe Calderon of the PAN.
Close to Videgaray, Meade could test Beltrones' ambitions. The latter's legislative skills have been a major boon to Peña Nieto, but he is seen as head of a rival faction within the PRI that the president's team has sought to keep at bay.
A notable casualty of the reshuffle was National Security Commissioner Monte Alejandro Rubido, who was regarded as a likely fall guy for the brazen escape from maximum security prison by drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman in July.
Rubido was replaced by Renato Sales, previously the government's anti-kidnapping chief.
Peña Nieto also appointed new heads for other ministries including agriculture, environment and urban development.
Arguably the most experienced member of the government to depart was former Attorney General Jesus Murillo.
As attorney general Murillo headed the investigation into the 43 missing students and became a lightning rod for public anger over the case.
The president also appointed his chief of staff, Aurelio Nuno, as education minister, which could prove another important staging post for the younger man in his political ascent.
Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Simon Gardner, Cynthia Osterman and Lisa Shumaker