Even as a political scandal consumes members of his party, the mayor's management of the capital has him pegged in most opinion polls as the front-runner to succeed President Vicente Fox when his term ends in 2006.
Mr. Fox is heralded for breaking the 71-year grip on power held by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). But he has shown little progress since taking office in 2000. The economy remains sluggish, unemployment is up, and major reforms are stalled in Congress.
'Mexico is a classic new democracy, and voters are looking for leaders that are both honest and competent. And Mr. L�pez Obrador is all that,' says political scientist Federico Es�vez of the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico, a leading university.
The mayor's leftist, anti-US politics sit well with the vast number of marginalized Mexicans, who denounce market policies that skimp on social programs.
L�pez Obrador rejects many of the ideas that Fox supports, such as selling off the state-owned oil monopoly to foreign interests. He questions the benefits of the North America Free Trade Agreement, saying that Mexican farmers have received 'absolutely nothing' from it.
The mayor's harshest critics say he is a quixotic populist, like Venezuela's leader, Hugo Ch�vez, who has sent the once oil-rich economy sinking. Others call him 'Mexico's Lula,' referring to Brazil's President Luiz In�cio Lula da Silva, who softened his radical politics to appeal to both leftists and capitalists.
One Spanish swallow is not a summer, and President Fox's term does not end until 2006, but it seems at least the Iberoamerican world is turning up an interesting set of 'Fourth Way' politicians. That is not good news for the Washington dissensus.