Washington — The Monitor has invited foreign correspondents in the US to describe, in a series of occasional articles, how they cover the presidential election. This reporter is from West Germany. LAST spring I found myself almost alone with Bruce Babbitt in a forgotten village in Iowa. In a community room some 100 hot dogs with chili waited to be eaten by about seven voters. Mr. Babbitt took both items seriously.
Three of the seven voters were originally from Mexico. So the former governor of Arizona could practice his Spanish. He talked about trade, and he started using this German reporter for a friendly bantering. Fortunately the debate concentrated more and more on Japanese imports.
In the end Babbitt didn't make it. But I learned a little bit about American grass roots, and I have a very fond memory of the man. Not because he stood up for higher taxes - but because he was the only presidential candidate who admitted to drinking not only milk and iced tea but an occasional beer.
American presidential elections are a refreshing event. The candidates are mostly unknown, the results unpredictable. Just compare them with Europe, where the political parties run a tight ship and their figureheads are known for decades.
Take Germany: It's either Helmut Schmidt or Helmut Kohl. Take France: It's either Fran,cois Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac (though Mr. Chirac was dealt a setback last month). Take Britain: It's either Margaret Thatcher or Margaret Thatcher. The only exception would be Italy, a happy Mediterranean country. It changes governments every second weekend and so proves that one does not need a government at all.
Germans in both the eastern and western parts of the divided land are eager to learn whom they may soon have to deal with in the White House. Their interest in the issue - which directly and personally affects many of them - may surpass even that of the average American voter.
Politicians in Bonn want to calculate who is going to reduce how many American troops are overseas how quickly and under what circumstances. They let their aides prepare checklists about George Bush's and Michael Dukakis's stands on burden sharing, arms control, trade.
Politicians in East Berlin are interested in the same questions for their own reasons. So they read West German newspapers to find out more about the campaign and send a Russian translation to Moscow.
For Germans the status quo in foreign policy is - for good reasons - something that is cherished. That is why a solid majority east and west of the Elbe River would probably vote for Mr. Bush. The vice-president would be a welcome guarantor of no surprises. Everybody in Bonn - and for that matter in East Berlin - is prepared to get along with Mr. Dukakis, however.
Now that the scare of being confronted with a right-wing or a left-wing preacher has vanished, Germans ask themselves: What is the difference between two reasonably moderate, experienced pragmatists?
The only thing that could get the West Germans really excited would be the nomination of Harvard Prof. Joseph Nye as Dukakis's secretary of state or national security adviser. They would shiver at the prospect that the former member of the Carter administration might try a new aerobics exercise in foreign policy as in the '70s, keeping the West Germans from exporting nuclear power plants to Brazil.
American campaigns do have many shortcomings: Too much money involved, too much sex and morality (Gary Hart-Donna Rice). Relatively exotic issues like school prayer would not matter in a single European campaign.
But on the other hand, the American race is a very down-to-earth contest. The process itself makes and shapes leaders. Journalists who follow the candidates around the country have a unique opportunity to explore US political geography.
This year it started in Iowa, where voters proved to be at least as smart, interested, and probing as anybody inside the Washington Beltway. It continued in New Hampshire, where voters kept telling the untruth to the pollsters - it is, after all, a secret ballot.
Super Tuesday introduced a figure whose profile came closest to that of Superman, who is widely known and appreciated overseas. But Albert Gore was a fluke. Now it is going to end up with an American of Greek ancestry and a ``Connecticut Yankee'' from Texas.
American presidents come and go. The rest of the world has to live with them, adjust to their agendas and their virtues as well as their occasional naivet'e. The latter is not necessarily a fault, but it can be a virtue, too. Who, if not an American president, could make old Andrei Gromyko break a pencil merely by introducing new arms control proposals? Who, if not an American president, dared to challenge the conventional wisdom of d'etente-niks who thought that nothing could be done to keep ``socialism'' from spreading worldwide?
Ronald Reagan was very much a challenge for European reporters. They tried for eight years to explain to their readers why he was so tremendously popular at home. Their failure was among other things a language problem: How do you translate ``I want them to cry uncle'' into German?
Now that he is about to be replaced by a less colorful and probably much less entertaining politician, I am already starting to miss him. Foreign leaders remember the frugal years in the White House, with Jimmy Carter offering white wine and crackers. Foreign leaders' wives will remember the Reagan years with a tear, because they met people like Sylvester Stallone at state dinners.
I am looking forward to covering the conventions in Atlanta and New Orleans. It's the balloons that make the difference from similar events in old Europe. In Germany, even the Greens crowd into smoke-filled rooms for their ideological cockfights and nobody gives anybody a break. After four years here I am convinced that political parties in my country need more balloons.
Leo Wieland is the US correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, in Frankfurt, West Germany.