First, there was the name-calling: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez called his Mexican counterpart an American "puppy dog" after President Vicente Fox defended a US plan for a free-trade zone last week.
Mr. Chávez led several other Latin American leaders at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina in proclaiming the idea dead. Chávez taunted that Mr. Fox was "bleeding from his wound."
Then Mexico ordered the Venezuelan ambassador to pack his bags and prepare to be expelled unless Chávez apologized. Chávez refused. Instead, he warned: "Don't mess with me, sir, or you will get stung."
Within a week, the spat escalated into a full-fledged diplomatic crisis. Both leaders recalled their ambassadors on Monday. Now, the bilateral dispute has been picked up by a Mexican politician to try to score points against Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, the front-runner in next year's Mexican presidential elections.
The election will pit Roberto Madrazo, the Institutional Revolutionary Party's candidate, against Lopez Obrador and Felipe Calderon, the nominee of Fox's National Action Party. Lopez Obrador has been leading both Madrazo and Calderon in public- opinion polls by at least 10 points for close to a year. "There are clear similarities between Chávez and Lopez Obrador," Mr. Madrazo said Monday. "I see authoritarianism in them both."
Lopez Obrador's populist, leftist appeal and the socialist-style handout programs he instituted as mayor of Mexico City have led some to compare him to Chávez, who is a fan of Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
Madrazo said that Lopez Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would shun Mexico if Lopez Obrador came to power. "I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez's government that I don't want to happen here," Madrazo said.
He also accused Lopez Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and said the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the upcoming election. Wednesday, Lopez Obrador's Party of Democratic Revolution (PRD) denied having any contact with Chávez.
In fact, Lopez Obrador and his party rallied behind Fox during the diplomatic spat. Juan Jose Garcia Ochoa, a PRD congressman, called the Venezuelan leader's remarks an offense to Mexico's national honor. Former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda urged Fox in a radio broadcast to "completely break" relations with Venezuela. "Chávez is orchestrating a campaign throughout Latin America to interfere in the elections in Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico and Nicaragua," he said.
Although most Mexicans support their president's stance toward Chávez, some here used the dispute to slam Fox for his tendency to side with the US. Mexico's left-leaning La Jornada newspaper ran a cartoon showing Fox diving to block a soccer ball flying toward Bush's head. "This was all a big mistake on Fox's part," says Rafael Fernandez de Castro at the Instituto Tecnologico Autonomo de Mexico, a private university. "Bush is one of the least popular presidents in Latin America in a very long time, and Chávez is capitalizing on all the anti-Bush feelings. There's no way to win ... You don't pick a fight with a professional fighter."
• Danna Harman is Latin America bureau chief for The Christian Science Monitor and USA Today.