There were whispers when Brazilian leftist Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva made his political comeback this week that President Jair Bolsonaro was licking his chops, seeing an easy foil for his reelection bid.
But it only took two days for the far-right leader to start looking worried at the prospect of a heavyweight showdown years in the making: Bolsonaro vs. Lula in 2022.
The first sign of concern in the president's camp was an extremely rare sighting: Bolsonaro, who has regularly flouted expert advice on Covid-19, dutifully wearing a face mask Wednesday.
Speaking at an official ceremony, he defended his handling of the pandemic, which has claimed 273,000 lives in hard-hit Brazil.
"This is a government of seriousness and responsibility," Bolsonaro said, signing a bill to accelerate vaccine purchases -- the same vaccines he had vowed not to take himself and joked could "turn you into an alligator."
The about-face came hours after Lula tore into Bolsonaro's record on the pandemic.
"Brazil has no government," he said, attacking Bolsonaro's "imbecile" handling of Covid-19 in a speech marking his return to politics.
Lula, the alternately revered and reviled leftist who led Brazil through an economic boom from 2003 to 2010, regained the right to run for office Monday when a Supreme Court judge annulled his corruption convictions on procedural grounds, sending them to another court.
That put the charismatic steelworker-turned-president back in the political game for the first time since 2018, when he was jailed for taking bribes from companies seeking juicy contracts with state oil giant Petrobras.
He spent 18 months in prison and was barred from the 2018 presidential election, in which he had been the front-runner -- and which Bolsonaro ultimately won, riding a wave of outrage with Lula and his Workers' Party (PT).
Lula, who claims he is innocent, wasted no time making what looked very much like a stump speech -- though he stopped short of formally announcing his candidacy for October 2022.
A key question now for Latin America's most-populous country and largest economy is how its president will play the new political gameboard.
- Battle of extremes? -
On the one hand, Lula's return to politics looks like fuel to the fire for Bolsonaro, the divisive polemicist dubbed the "Tropical Trump."
"Bolsonaro is a politician forged in the flames of confrontation. He has to have an enemy. He was dreaming of Lula's return to the ring," said political scientist Marcio Coimbra of the Mackenzie School in Brasilia.
Many Brazilians are fearing a campaign of polarizing extremes, at a time when the deeply divided country is already suffering from the pandemic and its economic fallout.
Bolsonaro, 65, let fly some of his trademark invective Thursday, calling Lula, 75, a "convict" and "piece of decaying meat" in a live Facebook video.
But if his first reactions are any indication, Lula's return could force Bolsonaro to move toward the center.
More than halfway into his term, Bolsonaro's hardline, polarizing style has given him few concrete achievements to boast.
And like Trump, his political role model, he will no longer be able to run as the outsider arriving to drain the swamp.
"Bolsonaro isn't a novelty any more," said law professor Michael Mohallem of the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
If the race goes to a Bolsonaro-Lula runoff, voters in the middle -- many of whom dislike both -- would likely lean Lula if the elections were today, he said.
"Bolsonaro is the one who looks like a radical," he told AFP.
Lula, who presented himself as a market-friendly, Covid-concerned moderate in Wednesday's speech, "looks like a mature, relatively reasonable politician by comparison," Mohallem said.
Bolsonaro's future handling of the pandemic could be a weathervane.
Sensitive to complaints from the business sector about the economic cost of Brazil's badly delayed immunization campaign, he looks poised to abandon his anti-vaccine rhetoric.
His senator son, Flavio, sought to rally Bolsonaro supporters on social media this week to republish a picture of the president with the caption, "the vaccine is our weapon."
"You don't win votes by being against the vaccine," said Mohallem.
"It might be easier for (Bolsonaro) to look like a flip-flopper than to pay the political price of that."
- Desperate for 'middle way' -
The latest twist has left some Brazilians longing for a third option -- and less-polarized politics.
Newspaper Estado de Sao Paulo called in an editorial for political, business and civil society leaders to settle on a candidate that "can speak to voters who are tired of both Lula's corruption and Bolsonaro's craziness."
But with more than a half-dozen lesser-known candidates jockeying for the centrist vote, for now Brazil 2022 is looking like a clash of the titans.
Barring a new surprise from the judiciary, of course.