At Pasquale Carbone's barbershop in Rome, which is decorated with green bathroom tile, customers leaf through weeks-old magazines and occasionally erupt with random commentary on the country's various national preoccupations, among them soccer, traffic and politics. For the last, the Kerry-Bush race presents an opportunity to muse on the oddities of contemporary U.S. political life.

In the indirect way of polite Italian discourse, the men only hint at their views of a preferred outcome. Their questions about John Kerry's chances suggest he's the barbershop favorite, as he is for the vast majority of Europeans, according to a recent poll by the German Marshall Fund. Americans are by and large popular with Italians, and many Italians are perplexed and worried that Europe and the United States seem to be drifting so far apart. So Kerry's line on rebuilding alliances, even if expressed vaguely, feeds a hunger for reconciliation.

Italians also by and large oppose the war in Iraq, polls show. Nonetheless, the country has tolerated its own government's support for George Bush's policy and its contribution to the multinational force in Iraq. The policy has withstood a car bombing of Italy's military headquarters in southern Iraq, which killed 17 soldiers; the execution of a private security guard; the beheading of a journalist; and the hostage-taking and release of two female aid workers.

In any case, with Carbone, a 35-year veteran barber, wielding razors and pincers over an exposed neck and thinning pate, no one seems to want to get too exercised over the issue. As in many things Italian, form in the U.S. election is as much of a concern as substance.

"Now, just what are the grand electors?" asks Carbone of an American client, referring to the electoral college. "So, if Kerry wins in California by one vote, he gets them all?" he continues, after hearing a tortured explanation of the peculiar U.S. system. "Here, we are not so brutal," he says, and enters into an even more complex explication of Italy's parliamentary system, which offers seats even for parties that win tiny percentages of the vote.

"The Americans are practical," says customer Atilio di Stefano. "They get a winner and that's it. They don't have so many parties creating confusion." He had not heard of Ralph Nader.

"But what about Florida?" asks another customer, recalling the conflicts of 2000. "A beautiful place. My brother lives there. In Orlando. He says there, they vote in different ways. Some by computers and some by paper. It seems strange for a country so advanced." "Every election has its problems," says Carbone diplomatically. "I like how Bush and Kerry have debated. It was very civilized, I read."

A few years ago, Italian politicians debated on the eve of national elections in televised free-for-alls that sometimes included candidates for ministries and party leaders of all the factions. In the most recent parliamentary election in 2001, current Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi refused to debate his rivals head-on. "We should make our candidates debate," said di Stefano. "In a calm manner."

"Kerry is behind, but they say he was calm in the debates," said another customer. "Maybe he is too calm. He's not elettrizzante. A politician has to show he cares. Look at our prime minister. He's a showman." Berlusconi was once a calypso singer on cruise ships.

"Americans are not like that," said Carbone, snipping the hairs out of a customer's ear.

They had also not heard about Howard Dean.

-- Daniel Williams, a Post foreign

correspondent who has covered Italy,

Europe, Russia and the Middle East