CARACAS, Venezuela – President Hugo Chavez has suffered a string of international setbacks, seeing his campaign for a U.N. Security Council seat fall short and his favored leftist candidates losing elections in Peru and Mexico.
Calling President Bush "the devil" still rallies faithful Chavistas in Venezuela, where Chavez leads in the polls six weeks ahead of elections. But critics say his superheated rhetoric is turning away some potential supporters elsewhere.
"Taking these kinds of broadsides against the U.S. hasn't really worked for him politically abroad," said Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "A lot of governments indicated they would vote for him in the U.N., and then when it came to the secret ballot, they didn't."
With Venezuela trailing the U.S.-supported Guatemala after 35 rounds of secret votes that left both shy of the two-thirds majority needed to win a Security Council seat, the contest could eventually end up going to a compromise candidate after voting resumes Wednesday.
Chavez portrays the U.N. voting as a diplomatic victory, saying Sunday that he achieved his objective of blocking Washington's candidate.
"We've taught the empire a lesson," Chavez told supporters. Even if "Venezuela isn't able to enter the Security Council, we've done damage to the empire. That was our objective."
But Ghana's U.N. ambassador, Nana Effah-Apenteng, said many diplomats feel Chavez went too far in his speech to the General Assembly last month, when he said the podium reeked of sulfur after Bush spoke.
"Even if you want to bash another head of state, this isn't proper decorum," Effah-Apenteng said. "That's the problem."
Some analysts, however, said Chavez's influence with a solid bloc in the United Nations despite counter-lobbying by Washington shows his political savvy.
"This is like a boxing match. You have a heavyweight in the form of the U.S., you have a junior weight in the form of Venezuela, and the fact that Venezuela has lasted this long speaks tremendously to the kind of influence that they were able to generate," said Miguel Tinker Salas, a Latin American studies professor at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.
Chavez recently visited countries from Belarus to Vietnam collecting pledges of support, and his oil-funded foreign aid has helped cement alliances in what he calls a struggle against U.S. hegemony.
"I think Chavez has achieved a lot to put Venezuela in a position of significant global leadership," said Dan Hellinger, a political scientist at Webster University in St. Louis. "It's clearly been set back in the last month or so, but what I'm curious to see is how he reacts now."
Leftist presidential candidates in Peru and Mexico saw their leads disappear just months after Chavez traded verbal barbs with those countries' leaders. Mexico's conservative Felipe Calderon reversed his fortunes by incessantly linking opponent Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to Chavez, even though the two leftists had never met. In Peru, Alan Garcia won by a surprisingly wide margin after accusing Chavez of meddling by endorsing leftist Ollanta Humala.
"Chavez's support for Humala's candidacy, instead of strengthening it, sank it, since Peruvians felt the Venezuelan president interfered in Peru's politics," said Farid Kahhat, a political commentator in Lima.
Chavez's influence has fared better in Bolivia, where socialist President Evo Morales considers him a mentor, and in Nicaragua, where Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega leads the polls heading into the Nov. 5 presidential election.
But Chavez also has been notably quiet about the prospects of Ecuadorean leftist Rafael Correa, who faces a runoff next month in a presidential race with pro-U.S. businessman Alvaro Noboa.
"Chavez has proven to be political kryptonite in several electoral races, so I think you are seeing some backing away from Chavez," said Erikson, at Inter-American Dialogue.
Caribbean countries, though, have begun to benefit from Venezuelan oil deals that bring them fuel at preferential prices, and several nations announced support for Chavez's U.N. bid.
Lloyd Best, a political commentator in Trinidad and Tobago, said the Caribbean appears "profoundly ambivalent," with many countries wanting to have good relations with both Chavez and the U.S. He said the declines in oil prices didn't appear to have cut into Chavez's support.
Chavez insists he is the victim of U.S. attempts to undermine him, and blames the Bush administration for a failed 2002 coup. In his re-election run, he calls opponents pawns of the U.S. and some of his campaign banners read: "Vote against the devil — Vote against the empire."
The president, however, also is seeking a softer campaign image in a new TV ad, appearing in a light blue shirt and saying he has one guiding principle: love. Gazing into the camera, he says: "I've always done everything for love. ... I need your vote."
Though poll results vary widely, surveys say Chavez has the edge over the main opposition candidate, Manuel Rosales, who called the U.N. deadlock a "shameful punishment."
Venezuelan society remains polarized over Chavez, and the poor are among his most vociferous backers.
"I'm very proud that we have a president who's been a world leader," said Nelson Guzman, who sells clothes on the street in Caracas. "What the president has done is open the world's eyes."
In a wealthier suburb, sociologist Elizabeth Fuenmayor said she is ashamed that Chavez is president. "He just wants control of everything, and he feels that if he's in the U.N. also, he will have more power."