Regardless of which Democrat pulls ahead as the candidates race toward Nevada and South Carolina, the rapid political rise of a Harvard-educated Illinois senator with a Kenyan father is bringing ripples and some tides of excitement in the near and far corners of a weary world.
It's clear that the buzz around America's first realistic black candidate has fed the imagination of many non-US observers, who see the controversial superpower as offering something different.
The image of a young, lanky African-American who combines charisma and a sense of nobility vying with a high-powered woman senator for the planet's most powerful office lends a feeling of history and symbolizes the democracy and diversity that many abroad want to see as America's significant contribution.
"Whether it is Hillary or Obama, what the world is seeing is a new America in these candidates," says James Hooper, a former US diplomat now at the Public International Law and Policy Group in Washington.
"[Barack Obama is] what the rest of the world dreams America can be," says JacquesMistral, a transatlantic specialist and director of economic studies at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "He looks like a Kennedy type, and that he's black is very new. In Europe, the idea that a woman can win is accepted. But for a black person to win would represent a radical change – for the US, and the world."
It is too early to say that "Obama-mania" is sweeping the planet, particularly after the junior senator's second place showing in New Hampshire. The public in Europe and Asia have only recently focused on Mr. Obama, though in Africa he's been news for some time.
But in a world where nearly every poll shows America's image seriously dragging after the Iraq war onset, and scant interest in Republicans, Obama has made a significant splash, especially among the young. In Germany, which still swoons over JFK, he's been called a "black Kennedy" – though as in much of Europe, German opinion is divided between the "experience" brought by Sen. Hillary Clinton, and the "charisma" of the newcomer who won the Iowa caucus.
A straw vote conducted by the Spanish newspaper El Mundo has Senator Clinton edging Obama 51-49. But in a brief survey of five French and Spanish newspapers, columnists don't enthuse over Clinton, as she is not seen as someone fresh and new. Still she is described favorably as determined and as a consensus builder.
In Japan, where US elections are sometimes taken more seriously than the election of the Japanese prime minister, the rise of Obama is as intriguing a subject as the romance between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the Italian singer Carla Bruni.
"Obama-san is great," says Azusa Shiraishi, a sophomore at Seinan Gakuin University in Fukuoka. She compares Obama with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and thinks "he could bring different perspectives of the US to us as well as American people. That would be great."
Not surprisingly, in Kenya, where Obama's father started life as a goatherd, the public has followed every twist with a euphoric mixture of pride and envy. Ethnic clashes in the wake of Kenyan presidential elections have forced the US primaries into the background. But many Kenyans believe that Africa would benefit from an Obama presidency, moving the continent up the international agenda as well as promoting a feel-good factor.
"We always feel we are lower-class people," says George Anyango, who works at a shopping mall. "But if someone of Kenyan origin becomes president there, it will make us feel we are on the same level."
Obama is the favorite in the Arab world, not so in Israel, and has not been heard of much at all in China. People in Baghdad also seem to not have had the luxury of knowing much about the first serious candidate to oppose the war there. In Cairo, enthusiasm about the possible success of a black candidate with a Muslim name and a father from a third-world country is often tinged with conspiracy theories.
"I think it would be good for the world and America if an outsider won,'' says Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas official in the Gaza Strip. "But surely this won't be allowed – the CIA or someone would assassinate him first."
On the eve of President Bush's visit to Israel Tuesday, a banner headline in the daily Ma'ariv read, "Apprehension in Jerusalem about an Obama presidency." Worry has to do with the uncertainty of Obama's position on the Middle East – in contrast with Clinton's pro-Israel position – and vague unease about a candidate with Muslim antecedents as perhaps siding more strongly with Arabs. (Obama is a professed liberal Protestant.)
In the People's Republic of China, where international news is a state-controlled enterprise, the Internet is a more robust source of foreign news, and Obama's position (since retracted) to ban Chinese-made toys – will not have earned him early high marks in ruling circles. Only one of 21 persons interviewed on the streets of Beijing had even heard of Obama. Clinton, by contrast, is known well as both the former first lady and an advocate for women from the famous Beijing women's summit in 1995.
In Baghdad, a resident named Jassim feels that any US president will be looking mainly to his own country's interests. "I'm focusing on security and peace in my country. The important thing is ending the occupation ... and if this president wants us to live in peace, we will support him. Because when foreign troops leave, peace will spread across the country."
In Germany, despite its zeal for the new face, the Süddeutsche Zeitung writes that "Hillary Clinton would be the right candidate for that – even if she seems boring compared to Obama."
The day after the New Hampshire primary, Lasse Teubner, a student in Berlin, took the other side.
"I can't really tell you why I sympathize so strongly with Obama. It's just a feeling I have…. I have a feeling he is simply more honest."
Liu Na, the only Chinese person interviewed at random who had an opinion on Obama, commented that, "I have the feeling that he is another bearer of the 'American Dream.' "
•Mariah Blake in Germany, Scott Peterson and Awad al-Taee in Iraq, Dan Murphy in the Gaza Strip, Josh Mitnick in Israel, Robert Crilly in Kenya, Takehiko Kambayashi in Japan, and Peter Ford in China contributed.