American elections may fascinate the world, but they also look very different when viewed from abroad.
In the United States, columnists and pundits are already grading Barack Obama's trip to the Middle East, questioning whether the trip will help or hurt his campaign.
But in the region, writers are less impressed by the horse race and more focused on his foreign policy positions. While still largely impressed by Obama the man, many Arabs are increasingly dismayed by what they view as his sharp right turn on Mideast policy.
The debate over Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's apparent concurrence with Obama's goal of removing U.S. troops from Iraq by 2010 is a good example: In the Mideast, the debate centers on whether Iraqi security forces will be ready to take over by then, not whether Maliki was favoring the Democrats over the Republicans.
There appears to be a general preference for Obama in the Middle East, but the exception is Israel, where many Jewish Israelis remain suspicious of Obama's commitment to the country, and where public comment tends to favor Republican John McCain.
In the right-leaning Jerusalem Post last month, one op-ed writer described several of Obama's current and former advisers as "anti-Israel," condemning one whose "dovish views ... are public knowledge."
But even the Israeli right wing applauded when Obama told AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that Jerusalem "will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided," angering Palestinians who want East Jerusalem as their future capital.
Obama later clarified that statement, but in the Arab world disillusionment was already spreading fast.
In a Cairo coffee shop, Mohammed Sayed Said, editor of the Egyptian daily Al-Badeel, says Arab commentators are increasingly warning that Obama's slogan of change is unlikely to extend to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
"He is viewed here as totally biased towards Israel," Said says, "captured by the Zionist lobby in the United States. And as he also moved away towards the center, even occasionally to the right, press coverage of Obama has become very, very negative indeed."
Well before his comments to AIPAC, a columnist in Egypt's pro-government Al-Ahram publication argued that "precisely at the moment that [Obama's] moral voice ... was most needed, he fell so sadly short, and the reach of his moral wings proved to be cautiously perforated on an AIPAC line."
On the other hand, some of the things that cause Obama supporters in the U.S. to lose sleep help Arabs to feel a real connection with the Democrat.
When American conservatives talk derisively of "Barack Hussein Obama," both Muslim and Christian Arabs think not of Obama's political weakness, but that anti-Arab racism is alive and well in some corners of the American political discourse.
'One Of Us'
Said says there is a deep-rooted sentiment here that this son of a black Muslim father and a white Christian mother "gets it" when it comes to racial and religious hatred — and that alone makes many people here eager to see him in the White House.
"This 'one of us' mythology can be the man of the poor worldwide, can be the man of the oppressed, it can be the man of the minorities," Said says. "But I think, broadly speaking, he continues to be 'one of us,' competing for the top job of the United States."
But on one point, there is little dispute: The Arab world cannot wait for the next American president.
In a cartoon, posted on Al-Jazeera's English-language Web site, an old man is shown asking a young boy what he sees in a series of pictures. The first shows Hillary Clinton ending her campaign, which the boy calls "decisive democracy." The second shows Obama delivering pizza to the troops in Iraq, which the boy labels "difficult democracy." The third shows President Bush in combat fatigues carrying McCain in his arms. The boy's verdict: "disastrous democracy."