World watches the drama of U.S. presidential primaries

Saturday, January 12, 2008 | 5:10 p.m. CST; updated 6:16 a.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

LONDON — 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.

About 1.5 million people visited the BBC Web page reporting the win by Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-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.

She said Europeans also are struck by the diversity of candidates. “That’s a novelty in Europe. ... That attracts attention.”

Margret Sigurdardottir, 34, an opera and jazz singer from Reykjavik, said that in Iceland, “you can hear people sharing their views on this in the cafes and offices — and also in the hot tubs ... where everything of any importance is thoroughly discussed.”

In South Africa, political analyst Justice Malala said discussion of the U.S. primaries eclipsed even domestic politics. There hasn’t been much interest in Republicans Mike Huckabee or Mitt Romney, Malala said, “but Obama and Clinton are something special.” He added: “It reminds me of the Mandela presidency, which was about the dreams and ideals we hold dear.”

There are, of course, places where people are not following every twist and turn.

“I don’t think who is president will affect the U.S. policy toward China,” said Chen Xiaoguang, 33, a doctor in Beijing.

Even those who were following the primaries said it was like watching a game whose rules they didn’t fully understand.

In Mombasa, on Kenya’s east coast, Mbugua, the taxi driver, said that despite hours devouring the latest news about who is inching closer to the White House, he was still confused. “I find it a bit complicated — most Kenyans do,” he said. “I don’t understand why Iowa, New Hampshire and a few other states are so important.”

Correspondents Maureen Fan in Beijing, special correspondent Karla Adam in London, news researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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