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DISPATCH FROM ROME

They're the Obamas of Europe, or so they say

February 25, 2008|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Europe can't get enough of Barack Obama -- just look at a couple of the continent's own elections.

Walter Veltroni, until this month the mayor of Rome, is casting himself as the Italian Obama as he runs for prime minister of Italy.

"Yes, we can!" he says in his campaign, to the bewilderment of the majority of Italians, who don't speak English.

In Spain, commentators do not hesitate to compare Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to Obama, for good or bad.

"Zapatero a modo Obama" ("Zapatero, Obama-style") was the headline of a recent story in the Spanish daily El Mundo, which told of musical stars filming a campaign spot for Zapatero, much as will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas did for Obama.

These European politicians have very little in common with the Democratic presidential candidate; for one thing, they've been in office for many years. They do, however, represent the left wing of their nations' political spectrum and are relatively young, in the local context.

The emulation is testament to how the senator from Illinois has captured the imagination on this side of the Atlantic as he has at home.

Veltroni, 52, especially wants to be seen, like Obama, as a candidate for change.

Possibly the first commentator to refer to Veltroni as "our Obama" was Italian television personality Lucia Annunziata, on her weekly talk show.

It turns out she knew that Veltroni, a big fan of American pop culture, has long admired Obama, whom he met several years ago. Even though Veltroni, a former communist, has been in politics for years, Annunziata said in an interview, he can portray himself as being different because he is slightly younger than the generation that dominates Italian politics. And he has always had different interests.

"When we were all reading Marx, he was studying pop songs. When we were speaking Russian and Chinese, he was identifying with the Kennedys," she said. "He can claim he was on the sidelines, even though he was very deeply a part of the establishment."

Polls thus far indicate that Veltroni is trailing his formidable, very-established rival, billionaire Silvio Berlusconi, 71, who hopes to become prime minister for a third time.

Still, Veltroni's campaign workers will not let the Obama emulation rest. They are printing thousands of T-shirts with the slogan "Yes We Can" in Italian, and with translations into various local dialects.

--

wilkinson@latimes.com

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