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Election hits home near U.S. base in Britain

LAKENHEATH, England – In a country where "football" means "soccer" and "American football" is derided as an inferior version of rugby, the quarterback painted on the bookie's front window is an unusual sight to say the least.

On the other side of the High Street, the Stars and Stripes are on display outside the Costlow cell phone shop. A laminated U.S. map welcomes customers to R & B Property Agency and there are noticeably more SUVs and Ford F-350s on quaintly named streets like Dumpling Bridge Lane than in most places in Britain.

With the U.S. Air Force's 48th Fighter Wing based on 2,000 acres of countryside at the edge of this village, about 500 of the community's 2,000 dwellings are occupied by Americans and their families, giving the area a distinctively American flavor.

VIDEO: Britons hopeful U.S. vote will heal rifts

But the absence of "McCain 2008" or "Obama for President" signs sprouting from lawns in Lakenheath has much more to do with geography than a lack of interest in the race for the White House.

As a home to American airmen for 60 years, RAF Lakenheath is one of three U.S. military outposts within a 15-minute drive of the village. Officials estimate there are as many as 30,000 Americans in the area.

Long considered a source of aggravation, the conversation-halting roar of F-15s overhead now provides local residents with regular reminders that the looming U.S. election could have a dramatic impact on their livelihoods.

'Game over' for local businesses?
Many in the community worry about what the prospective victory of Democratic Sen. Barack Obama or Republican Sen. John McCain would mean for the future of the U.S. bases – RAF Lakenheath, RAF Mildenhall and RAF Feltwell – and say axing any of them would devastate the local economy.

Peter Newman, who runs The Plough pub, says almost one-third of his takings come from the wallets of Americans.

"The village does rely quite heavily on income from the bases and depending on which way the election swings it could mean base closures," the 30-year-old said. "I don't think the community could handle a base closure at the moment. I reckon it would be 'game over' for this business and quite a few others."

Image: Peter Newman and Chris Salter
Jason Cumming / msnbc.com
Peter Newman, left, who runs The Plough pub in Lakenheath, England, and retired customs officer Chris Salter have both been paying close attention to the U.S. election campaign.

Reg Silvester, chairman of the local administrative council in the neighboring town of Brandon, shares his concerns.

"Obama could have a big effect on this area if he made military cuts," he said. "Things are tough in the English economy at the moment. If you take the bases away it would leave an awful hole in the local economy."

However, some locals hope that change in the White House might result in Americans coming back out from "behind the wire" and reintegrating with the community.

When security was stepped up after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Catholic villagers who had traditionally attended Sunday Mass on the base were no longer allowed inside.

Invitations to the base's golf course – where fees are paid in U.S. dollars  – stopped. And a well-used local road was shut off to non-military personnel.

Chris Salter, whose daughter married an American airman and moved to San Antonio said no matter the outcome on Nov. 4 it was important to keep strong links between the two countries.

"I know they kicked our a**es out of America but we still do have a special relationship," the 68-year-old retired customs officer said. "I think Obama will get in. I'm nearly as old as McCain but he's too old. He looks as though he's being pushed around on a skateboard."

Vincent Perry, 47, spent more than 20 years in the U.S. Air Force before retiring as an F-15 flight crew chief and settling in Lakenheath. The Washington, D.C., native has cast his absentee ballot for Obama, who he believes is ready to be a "world leader."

"I don't care who you are – you can't deny that the States is in trouble," Perry said. "I watched all of the debates. And wouldn't it be nice to have a president who can talk intelligently?"

A country transfixed

It's not just the people of Lakenheath who have become obsessed with this election.

Most of Britain's ten national daily newspapers devote at least a full page each morning to the campaign and the McCain vs. Obama showdown receives extensive coverage on evening newscasts. An excerpt of an Obama speech is even being used in a television commercial for the venerable Times of London.

Professor Sarah Oates, who teaches politics at Glasgow University's Andrew Hook Center for American Studies, said many Britons see parallels between Obama and Tony Blair, Britain's former prime minister.

"There is widespread interest in this election," she said. "I've been invited by Brits to three all-night parties so they can stay up and watch the American election."

"The legacy of the Iraq war is quite strong here," Oates continued. "The average Briton did not support the war in Iraq and there's still a lot of anger and frustration."

"There's excitement about change in the White House because that will change British policy. What Obama says resonates with Brits," she said.

Oates suggested that many Brits are "puzzled and appalled" by Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

"To a Brit, maverick doesn't sound good. But she's very good theatre and they've watched it with the detached fascination of a train wreck," Oates said.

With roughly 300,000 Americans in Britain, both parties have been busy registering expatriate supporters. Democrats Abroad U.K. reports that the group's membership has quadrupled since Christmas while Republicans Abroad U.K. says its numbers have doubled in the last 18 months.

Miki Bowman, chairman of Republicans Abroad U.K., described much of the British media coverage of the election as "very superficial."

But she added: "People in Britain feel very free to tell Americans what they think about our government."

Bill Barnard, chairman of Democrats Abroad UK, said: "The parties are very much aware of overseas voters. In 2000, 538 votes and Al Gore would've been president. It can make a difference."

Back at RAF Lakenheath, base officials said that as of Oct. 23 at least 2,086 of the 2,704 absentee ballots issued – or 77 percent – had already been cast and sent back to the United States.

For others, local concerns trump all else

But on the other side of the barbed-wire topped perimeter fence, not everyone is counting down the days to Nov. 4.

The British economy is on the verge of recession, house prices are plummeting, power companies have warned household energy bills may rise by more than 20 percent this winter and gas still costs more than $7 a gallon.

"Do you not think that we have enough problems of our own to worry about an election in the U.S.?" asks Sandy Williams, 64, a Briton who worked for five years as a cleaning supervisor at RAF Mildenhall.

"People are worried about how they're going to pay their heating bill. All of the things happening in this country with our own government – it's enough to make you stop watching the news and reading the papers to stop yourself from worrying," she said.

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