WASHINGTON — BACK in 1980 the Washington bureau of the Sankei Shimbun had a hard time getting big play for stories about United States presidential primaries. Home office editors of the 3 million-circulation Japanese paper got excited only about the kickoff results of New Hampshire voting - and even that story went well below the fold on Page 1.
Eight years later Japan's interest in the US elections has skyrocketed. The twists and turns of the race from New Hampshire to Super Tuesday have been splashed across the tops of all major Japanese newspapers. Things have reached the point where Yoshihisa Komori, Sankei Shimbun Washington bureau chief, jokes that he's beginning to wonder whether the candidates are running in the US or Japan.
"Maybe the American public doesn't realize how interesting their whole presidential campaign is to foreigners," says Mr. Komori.
To the jaded native, the American electoral contest can seem a fleabag carnival that lurches about to no apparent purpose. To the foreign press the same process can look like Disneyworld: It's overpriced, but it's also a colorful and interesting part of US culture.
The state of world interdependence is such that the choice of a US leader can be important for countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe. And the openness of the US presidential race can be startling.
"I am enjoying the American campaign because it is so different from all the ones you have in Europe," says Leo Wieland, Washington correspondent for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. In most longtime European democracies, political parties play a dominating electoral role. Leading candidates are almost always party chiefs, who can stay the same for years. As a result elections can seem to be reruns, involving the same serious people in dark suits.
By way of contrast the novelty of the American self-selection process can be refreshing. "Here you have virtual unknowns coming out of the woodwork, trying to define themselves," says Mr. Wieland. The prime problem for foreign reporters writing about elections here is that they have to explain things their US counterparts would consider obvious. 'Flinty' in Bedouin
It's pretty hard to explain the flinty nature of New Hampshire to people in, say, Saudi Arabia. The nature of the primary campaign itself is hard to make clear, with its apparently random stops around the nation, its "Super Tuesday," and its "victors" who get only 30 percent of the vote.
Think about trying to explain the significance of Jerry Brown wearing turtlenecks to a nation where the weather is so warm the concept of a turtleneck is kind of mystifying.
"Starting last year we had long articles explaining how the primary system works," says Fouzi El Asmar, a Washington-based columnist for the Saudi paper Al Riyadh who adds that his readers actually have a good basic understanding of the complicated American political system.
Like reporters everywhere, foreign reporters writing about the US elections always look for stories related to local concerns. For Fouzi El Asmar, that means anything concerning housing loan guarantees for Israel or Gulf war references.
But for many of his counterparts in the foreign media, trade is the big local issue this year. That's especially true for Japan, where increased trade interdependence and tensions explain much of the increased interest in US voting.
The Sankei Shimbun has explained each candidate's trade policy in depth. Komori says it's a widely held perception in Japan that the Democratic candidates are by nature more protectionist, while George Bush remains the strongest free-trade advocate. Interest in foreign trade
Komori feels protectionist rhetoric still has widespread US voter appeal, despite the fact that the two candidates who most employed it - Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey - have dropped out of the race.
"Those two dropped out not so much because of their stance on the trade issue but because of their perceived liberal image," he says. But Wieland of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung says he thinks protectionism isn't getting as far as it did in 1984, when Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri sounded tough trade themes.
Other foreign reporters say more-general economic issues in the election are also of interest to their readers. "There are some worries about what the American recession could mean for Argentine economic recovery," says Julio Crespo of La Nacion of Argentina.
In general, a number of foreign press representatives said that so far they'd concentrated more on the Republican side of the race. President Bush is a well-known worldwide figure, while until recently many of the Democratic candidates were little known even in this country.
Vladimir Matyash of Tass says flatly that "we would like Mr. Bush to be reelected." Now an arm of the Russian government, the Tass news agency was once the voice of Soviet officialdom, and in that role Mr. Matyash admits he looked for negative stories. "We used unfriendly words in the past," he sighs.
Reporters from overseas agree on one thing: They find it difficult being treated as if they don't count. Their readers don't vote here, so they are ignored by the candidates.
A Sankei Shimbun reporter went to Clinton's Georgia office, for instance, and waited and waited for a staff member who'd said they would talk. They never arrived. "You'd be surprised by the lack of responsiveness by the candidates to foreign media," says the paper's bureau chief.