London — British anguish over the United States presidential race has focused on two issues: the candidacy of Indiana Sen. Dan Quayle and the absence of debate over the US budget and trade deficits. Both questions, say observers in London, are ones that the American public has shown little interest in during the final weeks of the campaign, though these themes touch on the important issues of competency in the White House and US impact on the world economy.
``Everyone is terrified of Quayle,'' admits Adrian Hamilton, foreign editor of the Observer newspaper. ``I don't think Americans understand this.''
Mr. Hamilton told the Monitor that Europeans are more aware than Americans that the US is the country with its finger on the bomb. After President John Kennedy's assassination and President Richard Nixon's resignation, Europeans pay attention to the No. 2 spot, he said.
Like the choice of an obscure running mate for George Bush, the refusal by candidates to discuss the national debt is unthinkable in British politics.
``It is this refusal even to acknowledge the existence of an economic problem, let alone to offer a solution, that most alarms and depresses an observer of this year's election,'' the Economist magazine says in its lead editorial this week. The Economist's editors decided to support neither candidate.
Even though the British can't vote on Nov. 8, they are freely offering their opinions and advice. And some are following the campaign closely. According to the BBC, 800,000 people watched the first presidential debate on television here, though the audience dropped to only 100,000 for the second presidential debate. Both appeared in the wee hours of the morning. It was the first time that complete presidential debates had been broadcast live.
British official preferences in the race are no secret, though members of Thatcher's government do not publicly discuss their preference.
``We prefer the devil we know to the devil we don't know,'' an official said off the record, referring to Mr. Bush, whose face is familiar in London.
Britons appear bemused with the US election process, and many don't understand how it differs from their own. In particular, one observer said they don't understand the implications of a president having to work with a Congress dominated by a different political party, something not possible in the British parliamentary system.
In the final days of the campaign, many British observers are despondent over the prospects of either candidate winning and see US prestige and influence suffering from an election campaign they say has been unworthy of the country which leads the Western alliance.
``The lack of strong candidates adds to the impression of America as a declining power,'' Hamilton said. ``The perception abroad is that people want to see a strong president who knows his own mind,'' he added.
In British eyes, any candidate who wants only what the voters want doesn't know his own mind.