U.S. Political Drama Compels -- and Baffles

Passersby watched a television program reporting the results of the New Hampshire primary at an electronics store in Tokyo on Wednesday.
Passersby watched a television program reporting the results of the New Hampshire primary at an electronics store in Tokyo on Wednesday. (By Shizuo Kambayashi -- Associated Press)
By Kevin Sullivan and Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, January 12, 2008

LONDON, Jan. 11 -- John Mbugua, 56, a taxi driver in Mombasa, Kenya, woke himself at 3 a.m. the day of the Iowa caucuses and flipped on CNN. He said he watched for hours, not understanding precisely what or where Iowa was but thrilled about the victory of Barack Obama, the first U.S. presidential contender with Kenyan roots.

"I have never been interested in the elections before," Mbugua, who also got up at 4 a.m. to watch the New Hampshire primary results, said in a telephone interview. "But now everybody is watching. Everybody feels that Kenya has a stake in the outcome of the U.S. election."

From Mombasa's sandy shores on the Indian Ocean to the hot tubs of Reykjavik, Iceland, the U.S. primary elections are creating unprecedented interest and excitement in a global audience that normally doesn't tune in until the general election in November.

This year's wide-open primary season, filled with big personalities and dramatic story lines, has created an eager global audience that suddenly knows its Hillary from its Huckabee.

"It's a great spectacle, and people are avidly devouring it," said Jeremy O'Grady, editor in chief of the Week, a British magazine. O'Grady said major British newspapers this week alone have devoted more than 87 pages to news of the U.S. primaries, including 22 front-page stories -- exceptionally intense coverage of a foreign news event. More than 700 correspondents from 50 countries covered the Iowa and New Hampshire events.

A popular BBC radio program, "World Have Your Say," devoted an hour this week to parsing how pollsters wrongly predicted that Obama, an Illinois senator, would win the Democratic primary in New Hampshire. The show attracted detailed and nuanced calls and text messages from Romania, South Africa, Liberia and other countries.

About 1.5 million people visited the BBC Web page reporting the win by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) over Obama in New Hampshire, making it one of the most-read stories in months, a BBC spokesman said.

"The candidates have more iconic status than usual," O'Grady said. "They are almost like superhero cartoons: the Mormon, the woman, the black, the millionaire, the war hero. . . . We do love a good show over here.

"Love it or loathe it, this is still a world dominated by one great power," he said. "Even if we can't influence the election, we want to see how it turns out."

Some of the interest is simply partisan cheerleading. In Ireland, Clinton has great support partly because many people fondly recall the role of her husband, then-President Bill Clinton, in helping achieve a peace deal in Northern Ireland, said Tim Pat Coogan, a Dublin author and historian.

But much of the enthusiasm comes from anticipation of President Bush's departure, according to several analysts. U.S. prestige and popularity in much of the world have sunk to historic lows since Bush took office, over such issues as the Iraq war and climate change. Many analysts said the election has created high expectations that the new president will be more in tune with the rest of the world.

"In many capitals people have been waiting for this change for some time," said Rosa Balfour, a senior analyst at the European Policy Center, a Brussels-based research group.

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