With U.S. elections just days away, north Asian countries are taking a closer look at the two presidential candidates.

Public opinion polls in Japan, China and South Korea show overwhelming popular support for Democratic Party candidate John Kerry.

A recent University of Maryland survey gave the Massachusetts senator a two-to-one lead over President Bush in Japan. He is also favored by a margin of more than four to one in China.

The surveys suggest the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq appears deeply unpopular in most of Asia and there is opposition to what many consider the United States' unilateral bent in the Middle East.

However, experts here believe political leaders in Japan, China and South Korea favor Republican President Bush.

"Lots of people are coming up in these polls as saying they would rather see Kerry win," said Sheila Smith, a specialist in international relations for the policy institute, East-West Center, in Hawaii. "Their governments, however, are quite cautious about the idea that a Kerry victory would improve things, and partly because they've got vested policy interests at stake that will be dramatically affected by a Kerry victory."

Ms. Smith says regional leaders are judging the presidential candidates not on Iraq but on their economic policies and their approach to North Korea.

The nuclear standoff with Pyongyang is a galvanizing issue in northern Asia and one of the areas where President Bush and Senator Kerry have clearly defined and sharply different policies.

President Bush promises to strictly pursue multilateral talks involving North Korea, China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. In a debate with President Bush, Senator Kerry said he favors one-on-one talks with the Stalinist regime to revitalize long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks.

"I want bilateral talks which put all of the issues," he said. "The economic issues, the human rights issues, the artillery disposal issues, the DMZ issues, and the nuclear issues on the table."

Some north Asian leaders remain uncomfortable with that approach. Last week the secretary general of Japan's governing Liberal Democratic Party said John Kerry's pursuit of bilateral negotiations with North Korea would be bad for Japan.

One day later, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters he hoped President Bush would do well in the election.

Unlike Japan, China has been careful not to voice any official position on the election.

A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Zhang Qiyue, recently underscored China's non-partisan approach during a news briefing in Beijing.

She promised the Chinese government will work with whomever wins to help promote strong ties between the two countries.

But the East-West Center's Sheila Smith says Beijing remains wary of Senator Kerry's focus on protecting U.S. labor and domestic industries.

"Any kind of economic policy that focuses on job loss in the U.S. is going to worry people in China or other places where greater competitiveness around the globe is actually attracting foreign investment," said Ms. Smith.

In China, there also is a perception that Democratic Party leaders are more aggressive about pushing human rights issues than are Republicans.

Even South Korea, which has often been at odds with President Bush, seems to favor the Republican incumbent. Despite widespread public opposition to the president's tough stance with North Korea, some analysts say South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun would rather not face a new administration after the November 2 election.


Ms. Smith says President Roh and most Asian leaders value continuity and prefer to rely on political relationships built up over time, even if those relationships may be strained.

"So its not just a Republican to Democrat or Democrat to Republican transition, it's just this notion of change and what it means and how long it will take a new administration to get up and running on whatever the policy agenda is that these countries are most focused on," she explained.

Whom to root for on November 2 involves a complex calculus here: a combination of political ideology, national self-interest and reflexive cultural preferences. For President Bush, it means he enjoys the support of north Asia's political top guns, whereas John Kerry can boast of widespread public approval.