THE Iowa caucuses are just days away. New Hampshire's primary is right around the corner. The Super Bowl and the State of the Union speech are behind us -- and that means it's time for US voters to sit back, grab their candidate guides, and watch the 1996 presidential campaign really begin.
But as they flip past Pat Buchanan on C-SPAN or try to find a station that's not running Steve Forbes's ads, Americans might do well to keep this in mind: Campaign '96 isn't just a US phenomenon. This year will see an unusual number of important elections all around the globe. A few of them are arguably far more fateful than the US election, both to the nations involved and the world as a whole.
A Russian presidential vote, for instance, scheduled for June, could help determine what sort of relationship the new Russia will have with the nations of the West. Israel's general election, which could be held as early as May, will likely determine the pace of Middle East peacemaking.
Even Spain faces a more profound political change than imposition of a flat tax. Spanish voters are judged likely to elect the nation's first conservative leader since the late strongman Gen. Francisco Franco when they go to the polls in March.
''If I had to rank them on really making a difference to society, I'd say the Russian election is first,'' says Richard Ullman, a former editor of the journal Foreign Policy, now a professor of international relations at Princeton University in New Jersey. ''Israel would be second. America would be a rather distant third.''
This doesn't mean the US election will be an exercise in triviality. November's vote could well set the country's fiscal direction for years, as incumbent President Clinton and his GOP opponent are likely to present very different views about the role government should play in citizens' lives.
It does mean that after 200 years of successfully changing leaders via elections, America is so politically stable that campaigns are fought over relatively narrow differences. In the US election, issues involve tax rates or welfare reform. Elsewhere they can involve freedom itself.
Take Romania. Every election is still a defining moment for democracy in Romania, which is lagging behind Poland, Hungary, and other East European neighbors in its pace of political and economic reform. An important presidential and legislative poll is scheduled for September, and the issue is not as much whether current leader Ion Iliescu will be reelected as whether he will make it difficult for opposition parties to even enter the race.
The electoral situation is similar in some of the nations formed from former republics of the Soviet Union. Kazakstan, Uzbekistan, and Armenia all have presidential elections set for late in the year. To varying degrees, each vote should show whether old Communist elites are consolidating their hold on power in these countries. Some US analysts worry that Kazakstan, for instance, may be sliding towards on informal dictatorship under President Nursultan Nazarbayev.
''These countries are really in danger of slipping back,'' says Thomas Carothers, director of the Carnegie Institute's Democracy Project in Washington.
Then there's Russia itself. The Russian presidency is a powerful post, and the upcoming choice of a leader will thus directly affect the daily lives of Russia's citizens in a way Americans might find hard to realize. If Communist Gennady Zyuganov wins, he could dismantle or slow the economic reforms now remaking the face of Russian society. He might conduct foreign policy with an aggressive nationalism that could make Russia a far more difficult nation for the West to deal with.
Even if incumbent Boris Yeltsin pulls off a political miracle and wins reelection, Russia is likely to be more assertive outside its borders than it has in the recent past. ''There could be less participation by Russia in cooperative international ventures, like peacekeeping,'' says Mr. Ullman of Princeton. ''They feel the West hasn't done much for them - and in some senses they may be right.''
Israel's election will also reverberate far beyond its borders. Labor Party Prime Minister Shimon Peres will be looking for a mandate to continue the peace policies of his assassinated predecessor, Yitzhak Rabin. His rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the opposition Likud party, opposed Mr. Rabin's peace deal with Palestinians. He says that if elected he would never give the Golan Heights, captured in the 1967 Middle East war, back to Syria.
A vote for Labor is thus a vote for continued negotiations. If the right-wing opposition wins, it will almost certainly mean the end of peace talks with Syria.
Africa is yet another area of the world where ballot boxes will play an important role in 1996. Almost half of the continent's nations are scheduled to hold elections this year, though not all the votes are certain to occur. Real democracy has, in the past, been somewhat scarce in Africa. But there are some hopeful signs that this is changing - the stirring transfer of power in South Africa not least among them.