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Why the World Is Watching

The race for the White House always generates interest overseas, but this year's campaign has people all over the globe paying extra close attention.

By Alan Cowell in Switzerland

From Berlin to Tokyo to Mexico City, the U.S. presidential election is making headlines. In fact, the ups and downs of the Democratic and Republican contenders are generating so much interest overseas that you might think that foreigners get to vote.

They don't, of course, but the outcome of any U.S. presidential election—and this one in particular—matters everywhere. The U.S. is the world's sole superpower, and has the largest economy and most pervasive media and culture: What America says and does-—from the conduct of the fight against Islamic terrorism to the way it deals with climate change—reverberates around the world.

But a significant factor in the heightened interest this year is the contenders themselves. (And with both the Republican and Democratic nominations up for grabs, there have been plenty of contenders to go around.)

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The Democratic contest, in particular, has grabbed attention: The possibility of Senator Barack Obama or Senator Hillary Clinton as the first black or female President fascinates outsiders as much as it does Americans. And the fact that Obama's father was Kenyan has been a source of pride in Africa.

The unprecedented availability of election news from virtually anywhere on the planet is also playing a role. Thanks to the Internet and 24-hour satellite and cable channels like CNN and Fox News, people from Jakarta to Jerusalem can follow the play-by-play as easily as someone in Boston.

But as the world follows the campaign, it seems as if outsiders are pining for change in America as much as the candidates in both parties are promising it.

President George W. Bush is unpopular in much of the world. And a number of events in recent years—like the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the detention of terrorist suspects at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba—have tarnished America's image around the world.

"The world at large has a massive stake in the outcome of the elections," says Thomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform in London. "Never before has the U.S. had such a terrible reputation, a terrible image."

What Will Change?

In addition, the world has real questions about what will change, and what won't, when there's someone new in the Oval Office.

Among the questions: What will happen in Iraq after January? Will the U.S. stay, pull out, or something in between? Will the next occupant of the White House conduct the fight against terrorism in a different way than President Bush? How will the next President deal with the rise of China as an economic and military power? And if President Bush is unable to get Israel and the Palestinians to reach a peace agreement, will his successor do any better?

The impact of a slowing U.S. economy—and what the next President can or can't do about it—will affect the livelihoods of millions around the globe. It's an issue of particular interest in Asia, where there's concern that the next President will be more protectionist—that is, make it harder to export to the U.S.—than either Presidents Bush or Bill Clinton have been.

"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," says Bonar Tidor, 45, a human rights activist in Indonesia.

In Mexico, attention is focused on the candidates' views on immigration. While there are differences from candidate to candidate, the Republicans have generally taken a tougher line on immigration than the Democrats.

"There is a whole nation of Mexicans living in the United States," says Fausto Zapata, a former Mexican diplomat. "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."

Other nations that send immigrants, both legal and illegal, to the U.S. are also focusing on immigration. In the West African nation of Senegal, interest in the campaign is fueled by the hope that the next President will make the U.S. more open.

"I think President Bush is anti-Islamic," says 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."

Aside from the policies and personalities that are making this presidential race so interesting, the American electoral process itself—being seen up close by millions of people around the world for the first time—is proving inspiring.

"It is in many ways an uplifting sight to see a great democracy functioning at that most basic of levels," says Lord McNally, a member of 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."