In Bonn, US vote eclipsed by Soviet initiatives. As the US presidential race nears its end, two key allies seem comfortable with either a Bush or Dukakis victory. The French see little difference between the candidates (see Page 10). The distinction is also lost on the West Germans, who in any event, are less concerned with the US election than developments in the Soviet Union.
Many West Germans are transfixed by the changes going on in the East bloc. So much so, their concern with the election in the United States is almost imperceptible.
``I think if they felt either candidate represented a radical change in East-West relations, they'd get much more excited about the election,'' says one United States diplomat based here.
But on the global issues that concern West Germans most - superpower relations and arms control - the presidential candidates are viewed as roughly equal. It's a view promoted by visiting United States political pundits as well as West German commentators.
Says one West German government official: ``It was established fairly early on that, on foreign issues at least, there's not much difference in who wins.''
As a result, he says, interest in the United States campaign peaked during the primaries and slumped in the months since the conventions.
Part of this is due to timing.
Foreign headlines here were dominated for weeks by preparations for Chancellor Helmut Kohl's recent trip to Moscow.
``For now, all eyes are focused on the Soviet Union,'' says Angelika Volle, a research fellow at the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Bonn.
Dr. Volle says West Germans see Mikhail Gorbachev as an active leader - while the United States leadership is notably absent from current allied discussions.
This isn't just a coincidence.
Many European analysts agree the Soviets timed a wave of diplomatic initiatives toward Western Europe to coincide with the United States presidential campaign.
The campaign is traditionally a time when the United States becomes preoccupied with internal concerns - opening up access for the Soviets among the European allies that they might not have otherwise.
West Germany is a prime target for the warm winds from Moscow.
During Mr. Kohl's visit to the Soviet Union last week, his government signed six bilateral agreements and West German firms clinched 30 contracts.
At the end of the visit, Mr. Gorbachev announced that ``the ice has been broken'' between the two powers. The stage is also set for a return visit by the Soviet leader to Bonn next spring.
Chancellor Kohl took pains during his visit to emphasize Bonn's close ties to the Western alliance. But, back home, attitudes toward the superpowers continue to change.
A recent poll published by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, an institute associated with the opposition Social Democratic Party, shows that only 11 percent of West Germans now see Moscow as a threat to world peace.
Other polls show that Soviet leader Gorbachev is considerably more popular here than is President Reagan - or most West German politicians for that matter.
Such attitudes have a impact on how the US presidential candidates are perceived.
``It's very difficult for Germans to take US elections seriously,'' according to Volle.
The problem was underscored this summer, when West German television carried extensive coverage of the nominating conventions.
``All those balloons and actresses singing - it was a show; certainly not something most Germans associate with the democratic process,'' she says.
West Germans also puzzle over the low voter participation in United States elections.
West Germany's own voter turnout routinely hits well above 80 percent. The fact that so few Americans vote is considered further evidence that the election process isn't taken seriously enough by Americans.
Still, West Germans soberly acknowledge that the next US president will strongly influence the future shape of Europe.
At a recent talk given by one of Michael Dukakis's top foreign policy advisors here, one of the first questions posed by West German journalists was how the Democrat would deal with Gorbachev.