THE British have a special reason for being curious about the outcome of the race for the White House: They know George Bush is hoping that, like Prime Minister John Major in last April's election, he can come from behind and snatch a victory.
This is giving added interest to a battle that, from a European standpoint, traditionally produces not only a leader of the American people but the champion of the democratic world.
Robert Birchell, professor of American studies at Manchester University, thinks a Major-style win for President Bush is unlikely.
"A Clinton victory seems probable, given the president's performance in the campaign and the present mood of the American people," he says. "It is not so much the president's economic record that will sink him. I think his weak point is his stance on the abortion question."
Mark Hoffman, an American-born lecturer in international relations at the London School of Economics, is not so sure Bush's loss is inevitable. "I think the outcome will be a lot tighter than people think. Bush may be able to rely on many voters of middle age deciding at the last minute that they can't vote for Bill Clinton," he says.
There is a consensus that Britain could expect Governor Clinton as president to pursue a more protectionist line on international trade than the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Professor Birchell forecasts that the Democrats will do well in the congressional elections, and that this may create trade relations problems for Britain and other European nations.
"If in such circumstances you have an inexperienced president without strong congressional connections, protectionist attitudes may harden, making conclusion of a new GATT agreement difficult," he said, referring to the the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations that have been stalled over a disagreement between the United States and the European Community.
Mr. Hoffman believes a Clinton win would probably make it futile to proceed with the current Uruguay Round of the trade talks.
He predicts that the pressures a Democratic president would be under from the US farm and manufacturing lobbies would make it necessary to begin "an entirely new set of GATT negotiations."
British officials anticipate that in the White House Clinton would pursue more interventionist domestic economic policies than either Bush or former President Reagan. This could produce serious tensions between Washington and London, they say.
Labour opposition policy planners agree. One said: "If Clinton can boost the US economy by investing heavily in infrastructure projects he will be following policies not unlike those of the Labour Party. If in the US, those policies can be shown to work, the contrast between the Clinton approach and that of the Major government will be obvious."
A victory for Clinton might also set up London-Washington tensions over arms control and Northern Ireland.
Hoffman considers it "almost certain" that a Clinton administration would demand the continuation of a moratorium on nuclear testing and oppose Britain's development of a standoff air-launched missile. Bush, he thinks, might be more understanding of Britain's wish to retain an independent nuclear deterrent.
"Clinton has also made very strong statements on Northern Ireland," Hoffman says. "If he were to follow through on his idea of appointing Ray Flynn, mayor of Boston, as a US peace ambassador to Northern Ireland, that would create real problems for the British government."
Birchell considers that a good indicator of how the US-Britain relationship might fare if Clinton wins would be appointments to the US Embassy in London.
"In Ray Seitz the US has the first career diplomat to hold the ambassador's post," he says. "He is highly popular and has excellent top-level connections, and if he were allowed to stay on, that would be seen as a sign of continuity. But if Clinton were to give the embassy to a solid financial backer of the Democratic Party, there would be disruption of diplomatic connections."
Another difficulty if Bush were defeated on Nov. 3 might lie in the personal chemistry between the US and British leaders.
A source close to Major said: "The president and the prime minister are on excellent terms. They understand and trust one another. In the Gulf war they forged a close personal relationship, and that has endured."
Underlying such comments is the nagging worry that with Clinton in the White House, the British government would have to begin all over again trying to argue that the so-called "special relationship" between London and Washington is worth fostering.
Hoffman noted that at the outset of the Bush administration the US tended to give its relations with Bonn a higher priority than those with London. "The Americans these days ... prefer to look at Europe in general terms rather than cultivate bilateral ties with individual governments," he said.
At Oxford University, where Clinton was a Rhodes Scholar, hopes are high that several campus alumni will win senior posts in the next US administration.
Robert Reich and Ira Magaziner, both in line for positions in a Democratic administration, studied with Clinton at Oxford in the late 1960s, as did Michael Mandelbaum, a foreign policy adviser, and Robert Shearer, an adviser on economic policy.