BERLIN (Reuters) - Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy is winning over hearts and minds in Europe, where his race, youth and promise of change are raising hopes for an America the world can like again.
Obama’s bid for the U.S. presidency suffered a setback on Tuesday when he failed to clinch the Democratic nomination, losing crucial contests in Ohio and Texas to rival Hillary Clinton.
But in Europe he has emerged as a favorite of the people and media, political analysts say, after a brief European infatuation with the better-known Clinton last year.
Influential German weekly magazine Der Spiegel put a picture of the Illinois Senator on its cover in February under the headline “The Messiah Factor - Barack Obama and the Yearning for a new America”.
Inside, the magazine described Obama as a symbol of America’s rejection of the George W. Bush era, a period linked in the minds of many Europeans to the Iraq war, Abu Ghraib prison scandal and go-it-alone U.S. diplomacy.
“Germans are in love with Obama,” said Volker Perthes, head of the Berlin-based SWP foreign policy think tank. “His election would show America is capable of renewing itself, of self-correcting after the Bush years.”
Karsten Voigt, coordinator for U.S. relations in the German Foreign Ministry, said Berlin could work well with Obama, Clinton and the Republican nominee John McCain — a sentiment echoed in other European capitals.
But he drew a clear distinction between the view of government officials and those of the population, who he said wanted the clear change that Obama promises.
“There is an incredible desire in Germany to identify with the American president again,” Voigt told Reuters. “Obama is fresh and new. He symbolizes an America that has overcome its racial divisions. People see that and don’t care about the details.”
America’s image has been worsening. A 2007 survey of world opinion by the Pew Global Attitudes Project showed 66 percent of Germans, 60 percent of French and Spanish, and 42 percent of British had an unfavorable view of the United States.
Political analysts say Bush’s departure alone is likely to lift these scores, regardless of who replaces him.
McCain, they say, is well known in Europe and seen as an honest, straight-shooter even if he is tarnished for some by his links to Bush and Iraq. Clinton is also a familiar face in European capitals after years as first lady.
But Obama, the only candidate who opposed the 2003 Iraq war from the start, is seen to embody the cleanest break from the past and that has fuelled his support in Europe.
Der Spiegel said his election would represent the “biggest possible U-turn” from the Bush years.
In Italy, Rome Mayor Walter Veltroni has sought to emulate Obama, positioning himself as the “change” candidate in an April election where he will face off against the centre-right leader and media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi.
At the launch of his campaign, Veltroni slipped into English to announce “Yes we can!”, Obama’s catch phrase.
A string of British pro-Obama groups have sprung up on social networking site Facebook, with members ranging from young black men to women in headscarves and public school educated students at leading universities.
“There is getting to be a lot more interest,” Pete Start, a British student who founded the Britons for Obama group, said.
“A few months ago, people were still only asking if it was possible a black man could win. Now they’re more interested in what his policies are.”
Few polls exist on Europeans’ preferences in the U.S. election. But a survey published by the CSA polling group last month showed the French now prefer Obama over Clinton, who received much more coverage in French media in the run-up to the nominating contests — by a margin of 38 percent to 36 percent.
Jacques Mistral, an expert at the Paris-based Ifri institute who worked at the French embassy in Washington from 2001 to 2006, said Obama embodied the dream of an America at peace with itself and the election of a black U.S. president would be a powerful symbol to the rest of the world.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy won praise last year for appointing three women of African origin to his government, but only one of the deputies from mainland France is black in the 577-strong lower house of parliament — a situation mirrored in other European countries with large immigrant communities.
“If Obama were to win it would be a political earthquake of global proportions,” Mistral said.
Whether Obama would be a better partner for Europe than McCain or Clinton is less clear.
Obama made headlines in Germany last week when he told Europeans they must do more in Afghanistan and not count on the United States and Britain to do the “dirty work” in fighting the Taliban.
Voigt said he believed Berlin would face pressure do more militarily regardless of who succeeds Bush, but acknowledged that many Germans overlooked this when judging the U.S. candidates.
Additional reporting by Peter Apps in London, Robin Pomeroy in Rome, Laure Bretton in Paris; Editing by Timothy Heritage