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Around the world, U.S. campaign close to home

From Berlin to London to Jakarta, the destinies of Democratic and Republican contenders in Iowa or New Hampshire, or Nevada or South Carolina, have become news in a way that most political commentators cannot recall.
Image: broadcast showing footage of a New Hampshire presidential primary rally with Barack Obama in Japan.
A television in a Tokyo electonics store shows footage of a New Hampshire presidential primary rally with Barack Obama earlier this month.Shizuo Kambayashi / AP
/ Source: The New York Times

To look at the reams of coverage in newspapers outside the United States or to follow the hours of television news broadcasts, you might conclude that foreigners had a vote in selecting an American presidential candidate — or, at least, deserved one, so great is America’s influence on their lives.

From Berlin to London to Jakarta, the destinies of Democratic and Republican contenders in Iowa or New Hampshire, or Nevada or South Carolina, have become news in a way that most political commentators cannot recall. It is as if outsiders are pining for change in America as much as some American presidential candidates are promising it.

The personalities of the Democratic contest in particular — the potential harbinger of America’s first African-American or female president — have fascinated outsiders as much as, if not more than, the candidates’ policies on Iraq, immigration or global finances.

Potential model
And there is a palpable sense that, while democratic systems seem clunky and uninspiring to voters in many parts of the Western world, America offers a potential model for reinvigoration.

“It is in many ways an uplifting sight to see a great democracy functioning at that most basic of levels,” said Lord McNally, the leader of the small opposition Liberal Democrats in Britain’s House of Lords. “Even with all the money, the publicity, the power of television, the person who wants to be the most powerful man or woman in the world still has to get down and talk in small town halls and stop people on the street and stand on soapboxes.”

It was, perhaps, the first upset result in Iowa, with the triumph there of Barack Obama, that electrified interest, closely followed by Hillary Rodham Clinton’s victory in New Hampshire.

In Berlin, newspaper columnists started calling Mr. Obama the “new John F. Kennedy” — no small accolade in a city that reserves a special place for an American leader who, at the height of the cold war, told a divided populace that he, too, was a Berliner. “The black American has become a new Kennedy,” proclaimed the tabloid Bild.

Such was the exuberance that Karsten D. Voigt, the coordinator of German-American cooperation in the German Foreign Ministry, cautioned his compatriots against expecting too much. “No American president can live up to those expectations in terms of foreign policy,” he said.

In Paris, the fascination with the Clinton-Obama duel seemed to eclipse the Republican contest. “The Republican candidates are much less well known in France,” said Alain Frachon, the editor in chief of Le Monde. “It might be wishful thinking, but the French believe that this Republican era is over.”

Global impact
Not only the French. Much of the fervid absorption in the primaries and caucuses — accessible as never before on 24-hour satellite and cable television channels like CNN and Fox News — seems inspired by a hope that the American electoral process will end an era of foreign policy dominance by neoconservatives.

“There is a desperate sense of need that there must be something better than Bush out there,” said Dean Godson, head of a conservative research group in London called Policy Exchange. Or, as Thomas Valasek, a spokesman for the Center for European Reform in London, put it: “The world at large has a massive stake in the outcome of the elections. Never before has the U.S. had such a terrible reputation, a terrible image.”

It is, perhaps, too early to guess what specific changes Europeans and other non-Americans expect from a change of government. Many of America’s Asian trading partners worry about what they see as Democratic proclivities toward economic protectionism and stricter targets on greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are broader concerns. As Ramesh Thakur, a political science professor in India, wrote: “We foreigners can but pray that the new president, whoever he or she may be, will return America to its strengths, values and the tradition of exporting hope and other optimism. And so help to lift America and the world up, not tear one another down.”

In Japan, too, there are hopes for American renewal. “Already the fixed idea, ‘Only a white man can become president,’ has been broken,” the newspaper Mainichi Shimbun said Jan. 15. “We are witnessing the history, the process of grass-roots democracy turning into the U.S. strength.”

Israelis, for their part, seem to look at the elections through the narrower prism of their own security, and many seem to have concluded that Mrs. Clinton would be the best American president for Israel — a calculation bolstered by familiarity with her husband. By contrast, said Oz Katz, 29, an Israeli graduate student in public policy, Mr. Obama “is not really known to us.”

There is deep interest in the campaign in the West African nation of Senegal, fueled in large part by a dislike of President Bush and a hope that a new president will be more open to immigration and less hostile to Islam.

“I think President Bush is anti-Islamic,” said Mouhamed Souleymane Seydi, 24, a hotel-management student at the University of Dakar. “It’s become much harder for Muslims to immigrate to America or even to visit. If you show up at the airport with a beard and look Arab, you’re going to come under intense scrutiny.”

Immigration in focus
Closer to the United States, in Mexico for instance, attention is focused more on the attitudes of candidates toward immigration controls. “There is a whole nation of Mexicans living in the United States,” said Fausto Zapata, a former diplomat in Mexico City. “And the connections with relatives, friends and partners in Mexico are immense, almost gigantic. Almost any movement in the American economy affects Mexico, negatively or positively.”

Some outsiders maintain that, for a world seeking a signal of a changed direction in Washington, “the emblematic victory of Obama would immediately change the image of the United States in the world, particularly in developing countries,” as Jorge G. Castañeda, the writer and former Mexican foreign minister, put it.

But there is skepticism in some places that an African-American can actually win the presidency. “Can he win?” an Afro-Cuban cabdriver asked an American visitor in Havana. “I mean, can he win?” he asked, wondering if a black man could be elected in a land that Cubans are taught to see as riven with racism.

Interest in Obama
Curiosity about Mr. Obama is clearly behind the growing interest in the American vote in Brazil, where many citizens have African roots. Elsewhere in Latin America, expectations seem muted, particularly in Venezuela, where both supporters and foes of President Hugo Chávez seemed to look forward to the end of the Bush administration. “But we’re still aware that no candidate will drastically change relations between Venezuela and the United States,” said Manuel Sutherland, a representative of the pro-Chávez Bolivarian Association of Socialist Economists.

In Colombia, one of few places in the world that might have some nostalgia for the Bush era, many people seem drawn to Mr. Obama’s bid. “He would focus more on the needs of immigrants, making him the best candidate for Latinos,” said Ernesto Rubio, 39, a doctor in Bogotá.

In Asia, the level of interest generally seems lower, though people say they are watching. “People know the decisions of the American president will affect Indonesia, and that is why many are watching carefully the elections in the United States,” said Bonar Tidor, 45, a human rights activist in Indonesia.

But in the Philippines some displayed less concern, even with the Obama-Clinton race. “In the past we always have two white men talking about strange policies,” said Alex Magno, 53, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. “But probably if they get elected it will be the same as the old white men who contested the elections before.”

Reporting was contributed by Heather Timmons and Somini Sengupta from New Delhi; Victor Homola and Nicholas Kulish from Berlin; Katrin Bennhold from Paris; Chieko Tsuneoka from Tokyo; Alexei Barrionuevo from Buenos Aires; Simon Romero from Caracas, Venezuela, and Bogotá, Colombia; James C. McKinley Jr., Antonio Betancourt and Elisabeth Malkin from Mexico City; Marc Lacey from Havana; Julfikar Ali Manik from Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Seth Mydans from Solo, Indonesia.