- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2008

BERLIN — Europeans across the old continent have been transfixed by the U.S. presidential race, gobbling up press reports and wrestling with the intricacies of the primary system in search of clues to the likely next president.

The fascination stems in part from the sheer drama of the contests, with Sen. John McCain storming back from seeming defeat to become the Republican front-runner while Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battle neck and neck for the Democratic nomination. But above all, analysts and politicians say, it reflects a desire for change.

“We want to be able to love America again,” the conservative former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wrote in an editorial for Die Zeit newspaper.

The European press coverage is far more intense than usual at this stage of the voting. In France, the presidential contest since last month has consistently scored front-page headlines, at times eclipsing even such domestic stories as President Nicolas Sarkozy’s romance with model Carla Bruni.

In Germany, the ZDF public television network said it had received millions of hits on its U.S. election Web site and sent extra reporters to help cover the primaries.

From Finland to Portugal, Europeans have been studying the workings of the primary process to gain insight into who is most likely to succeed President Bush.

“I cannot remember quite so much detailed interest being shown in Britain before in the primary system,” columnist Janet Daley wrote in Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper.

In Ireland, where former Presidents Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy are celebrated for their Irish roots, the interest has been heightened by the blood ties of Mr. Obama, Illinois Democrat, through his maternal great-great-great-grandfather, who emigrated to the United States in 1850.

“I can’t count the number of media calls and inquiries we’ve received,” Eric R. Staal, country chairman of the Republicans Abroad organization in Germany, told The Washington Times.

“I think the fact that there is an African-American and a woman in the race adds to the level of excitement,” said Mr. Staal. Mrs. Clinton, New York Democrat, “is a lightning rod for polarization; that too attracts a lot of interest.”

“The war on terror and foreign policy are of very high interest here. People want to know what the next administration’s policies will be.”

Despite intense diplomatic fence-mending since the rift over Iraq, Mr. Bush remains unpopular in what Donald H. Rumsfeld, as defense secretary, dismissed as “Old Europe” — specifically France and Germany, which opposed the invasion of Iraq.

Many Europeans crave a U.S. administration that they see as less prone to military force, more inclined to consult allies and more willing to make concessions in key areas such as combating climate change.

“People are hoping for a new start,” said Patrick Keller, a political scientist at Bonn University. “In recent years, there has been huge aversion here to U.S. policy. Many people say you can see the change approaching just by looking at the two Democratic candidates. They’re not old white men but pretty exactly the opposite. …

“But this hope for change is leading to some misconceptions. Many people and media are already assuming that the next president will be a Democrat. That’s far from certain.

“And the sentiment for a return to an ‘America we can love’ and a ‘good America’ is also misguided. The notion that trans-Atlantic relations were always warm and free of conflict during the 1990s and before is absurd.”

Nikolaus Brender, head of programming at ZDF, said the German network’s Web page on the U.S. elections had 2 million hits within 48 hours of Super Tuesday.

“Germans are interested in the prospect of change in the U.S. because they have no one who represents a spirit of change in Germany,” Mr. Brender said.

Interest also is fanned by a growing realization among Europeans that White House decisions directly affect their lives. That gives the contest elements of a domestic European election, minus the voting.

“It’s a reflection of the influence the United States has on the rest of the world as a leading power,” Mr. Staal said.

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