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Foreign citizens are joining U.S. presidential campaigns, even though they can't vote

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French citizen Charlotte Persant campaigns for Sen. Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire in January. (Photo courtesy of Charlotte Persant)

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German citizen Mitja Muller, far right, stands with other volunteers for Sen. Barack Obama's campaign in Iowa. (Photo courtesy of Mitja Muller)

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Danish citizen Lars Hajslund traveled to Florida in January to campaign for Sen. John McCain. (Photo courtesy of Junior Chamber)

Like many college students, Mitja Müller spent part of his winter break barnstorming in Iowa to promote his favorite presidential candidate. He knocked on doors of Des Moines households during the day and shared a cramped motel room with his fellow UCLA volunteers at night.

Müller, 21, and his friends were charged with spreading the word about Sen. Barack Obama, who eventually won Iowa's Democratic caucuses Jan. 3. Of the many instructions they were given, one in particular stood out.

“We were sort of kinda asked to say we weren't from out of state,” said Müller, recalling to the large number of John Kerry supporters who flooded the state in 2004. “Iowans don't really like that that much.”

Unlike his classmates, Müller isn’t just from another state. He’s from another country--Germany--though with his perfect American accent Iowans wouldn’t have known without asking him. He is studying at UCLA this year and then will return to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

With the American presidential contest attracting so much global attention, Müller and other foreign citizens have been signing up to campaign for the person they want to occupy the Oval Office after George W. Bush. Given the impact of U.S. economic and foreign policies around the globe, these campaigners want to have a say in who will be making the decisions.

Many of these non-U.S. citizens slip quietly into campaigns, indistinguishable from the hoards of American volunteers. The foreigners blend in so well that they haven’t been noticed by political science experts. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, said any kind of informed opinion on this niche group of volunteers just doesn't exist.

“It’s news to 99 percent of the people in my field that foreigners are coming and working for Barack Obama,” said Sabato. “I've never heard a thing about it.”

Bruce Cain, director of the University of California's Washington Center, hasn’t seen foreign students heavily motivated to volunteer for campaigns before. The 280 “politically motivated” international college students studying at the university's Berkeley campus haven’t joined any American campaigns, Cain said.

“It’s pretty rare to find foreign students even show up for the Democratic and Republican clubs at Berkeley, which is a very politically active campus,” he noted.

This election might be attracting people from other countries because it is “the first true Internet election,” said Christopher Hull, an adjunct professor in Georgetown University's government department. People can experience more of the campaign online than in years past, he said. “This is a worldwide election in a sense.”

If campaign officials are aware of these foreign volunteers, they're not saying. None of the three major campaign offices--for Obama, Sen. Hillary Clinton and Sen. John McCain--responded to phone calls and e-mails requesting comment for this article.

It’s not just the Obama campaign that's attracted support from abroad. Lars Hajslund, a regional Conservative Party chairman in Denmark, traveled from his hometown of Silkeborg to Florida in January. There, he campaigned for McCain to become the next leader of the free world.

“Since we’re part of the free world, I'd like to do what little I can to influence who next has that title,” Hajslund, 40, said in a phone interview. Hajslund said his conservative views align with McCain’s on issues such as keeping American troops in Iraq.

Like Müller, Hajslund did grunt work for the campaign. He handed out fliers and stickers to churchgoers the Sunday before the Florida primary and actually got a quick handshake and hello from the senator. (Müller was able to get a picture with Obama; Hajslund wasn't as lucky with McCain.)

In the Clinton camp, Charlotte Persant, a French national, received a semi-private audience with the former first lady on primary day in New Hampshire. Persant, 20, campaigned for Clinton in January while on break from her year at the University of Virginia. She returned too late from last-minute efforts to enter the main hall for the victory party. That turned out well for her when Clinton and former President Bill Clinton stopped into the overflow room of volunteers to thank them face-to-face.

“For a French student in politics to meet Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton on the same night, it was like a dream,” said Persant, who usually studies at the Lyon campus of the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

But actually meeting the candidate isn't what draws people to lend their time. Like Müller, Markus Berensson, 21, of Sweden, worked as an unpaid intern for the Obama campaign in Iowa. Three of his co-workers during the summer of 2007 were also from abroad, he said in an e-mail interview.

Neither Berensson or Müller had done political work in their home countries, in part because getting involved with the parliamentary systems of government in Germany and Sweden requires a major commitment to a somewhat lockstep point of view. The American political system, on the other hand, provides more opportunities for politicking.

What motivated Berensson to spend his summer and winter breaks from Sweden's Uppsala University in Iowa was his belief that Obama can make America “a force for change in this world,” he said.

And even when the work becomes tedious, volunteers often find great satisfaction from their efforts. Persant went from door to door for three days in New Hampshire talking up Clinton to primary voters. “We spent like 10 hours campaigning each day; we didn't get much sleep,” said Persant. “It was maybe the best experience of my life.”

E-mail: ajs2170@columbia.edu