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Leading article: A revival of democracy

There was an impressive turnout for last week's presidential primary in the American state of Iowa, despite the freezing temperatures. The Democrats in particular benefited from a surge in the number of first-time caucus-goers and young voters. And last night the signs were that these levels of enthusiasm had been maintained in New Hampshire. But the story of the 2008 presidential election so far has been about more than mere numbers. Party activists and independent voters seem especially energised.

Predictions of steadily growing apathy among American voters are beginning to seem somewhat misplaced. A few years ago it was being said that Americans cared more about television talent contests than national elections. Not any more, apparently. Of course, there is still a very long way to run in this contest. But at the moment, the US election feels more unpredictable and open than any in recent memory.

There are a number of factors behind this. One is that the present occupant of the White House is hugely unpopular. The appetite for change in the country is palpable. That there is no presidential incumbent or Vice-President standing has also encouraged activists and voters alike to take these early stages of the contest seriously. All is to play for.

Another important factor is the nature of the candidates themselves, who are running starkly different campaigns. Despite being largely unknown several months ago, the former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee has won many admirers among Republicans with his easygoing manner and homespun appeal. On the Democrat side, John Edwards is running on the sort of social welfare reform ticket not seen from a realistic contender for the presidency in many years. Hillary Clinton has run a more centrist campaign, but the participation of the first-ever serious female presidential candidate has grasped the public's attention.

Finally, there is the Obama effect. Barack Obama is the first African American with a genuine chance of going all the way to the White House. The Illinois senator's upbeat campaign has caught a public mood of optimism. Independents, even some traditional Republicans, have warmed to him.

The race is still open. But what the early days of this contest demonstrate is that exciting candidates and interesting policies can successfully re-engage people with the political process. It is a phenomenon that we in Britain, with our own depressingly high levels of political apathy and stifling first-past-the-post electoral system, could learn from. We could do with some of the democratic buzz that this US presidential campaign has generated.