BERLIN — As President Obama and Mitt Romney prepare for a Monday debate on foreign policy and polls show the Republican challenger with a real chance of victory in two weeks, many observers abroad are saying: Wait, what?
From Europe to China to the Middle East, perceptions of the contest have lagged behind indications that the two men are in a virtual dead heat. Obama remains widely popular abroad, and there are signs that many leaders are unprepared for a Romney presidency.
In Western Europe, few people can imagine Romney in office. In China, officials have been focused on the intrigues of their impending leadership transition, though many worry that both American candidates have been beating up on their country instead of pummeling each other. And in the Middle East, political chaos has kept many activists and officials from contemplating the election much at all.
In Europe, leaders have good reason to avoid the issue: From the Scottish Highlands to the heel of Italy, it’s Obama country all the way. One survey last month from the German Marshall Fund found Europeans breaking 75 percent for Obama and 8 percent for Romney. Even conservative leaders have maneuvered themselves to appear closer to the U.S. president, reasoning that they can get their own electoral bump from doing so, although popular enthusiasm for Obama has diminished after a public frenzy in 2008.
Three years into an economic crisis in the euro zone that has threatened to spill into the United States, many European leaders have built alliances with the Obama administration that they worry would reset to zero under Romney, analysts say. The Republican challenger has pointed to Europeans as symbols of the big-government socialist state that he says Obama wants to build.
In Germany, the bulwark of austerity in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel would probably prefer an Obama victory, analysts say, although Ronald Reagan was a hero of her youth. Her center-right Christian Democratic Union has historically aligned with Republicans, but Merkel has focused on a vision of fiscal sustainability that includes high taxes along with lower government spending.
A mid-October Emnid poll for the Bild newspaper found that 82 percent of Germans expected Obama to win, compared with 11 percent expecting a Romney victory.
“There is so much unfinished business” between the United States and the rest of the world, said Stefan Kornelius, the foreign editor of the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. Merkel “is afraid the Republicans would have to go through the same process of understanding the euro crisis again.”
Top Christian Democratic Union officials who visited the Republican National Convention in Tampa this summer were careful to tell German newspapers that they were friendly with Democrats, too.
The same dynamic is on display in other European countries led by conservatives.
In Britain, Romney is viewed as representing a party that has swung further and further to the right on social issues, thus sharing less affinity with his counterparts on this side of the Atlantic than Republicans once did. The coalition government headed by Prime Minister David Cameron, a Conservative, has embraced the cause of same-sex marriage and vowed to vigorously combat global warming.
The gulf between the Republican Party and British Conservatives was clearly on display during Romney’s visit to London ahead of the 2012 Olympics, when his suggestion that the city wasn’t quite prepared to host the Games generated stinging rebukes from Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, a fellow Conservative.
In China, far more people appear to be paying attention to the U.S. presidential race this year than in 2008. Internet usage has exploded since then, and the non-state-owned news media has become more vibrant. There have been reports on Romney’s investments in the country, along with fascination about the democratic process.
But as China prepares for its once-in-a-decade power transition, which will come just days after the U.S. election, most official energy has been directed toward China’s future rather than on the possibility of a Romney victory.
Much of the Chinese coverage of the presidential campaign has focused less on who might win than on China-bashing rhetoric from the candidates.
Obama and Romney have had heated exchanges about China’s alleged currency manipulation, unfair trade practices and the loss of American jobs, each accusing the other of being soft on the issues. The fear in China is that the victor will find it hard to dial back the tone after the election.
The Foreign Ministry and the official Xinhua News Agency last week took the unusual step of commenting on the U.S. election and urging both candidates to cool it.
“The fierce presidential race seems to have morphed into a contest in which the one who plays tougher on China has better chances to win,” Xinhua said in an editorial Tuesday.
There are leaders, and populations, who favor a Romney victory. Eastern Europe has long seen Republicans as more sympathetic to their struggles with Russia, and former Polish president Lech Walesa endorsed Romney over the summer.
In Israel, where Obama’s Middle East policies have been viewed with suspicion, many people are quietly rooting for a Romney victory. Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to project a nonpartisan stance, he has been friends with Romney for decades, and his relationship with Obama has been cool.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, many countries are focused inward on troubled economies and shaky democratic transitions in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. There is also a widespread — and long-standing — belief in the Middle East that regardless of who the U.S. president is, U.S. foreign policy will always be the same.
In Egypt, few have bothered to tune in to the U.S. presidential debates, said Khaled Heba, a writer for the state-run newspaper al-Youm al-Sabaa. The question of Romney vs. Obama is simply not a priority, he said.
“Egyptians generally are not concerned with American affairs right now. All they’re concerned with is the conflict between national political forces within Egypt,” he said. “Here in Egypt, our economic situation is deteriorating. Our internal issues are more important than looking out at the world.”
Richburg reported from Beijing. Anthony Faiola in London, Joel Greenberg in Jerusalem, Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo, Petra Krischok in Berlin and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.