ISTANBUL, Turkey - Drive at night across the Bosphorus Bridge, which links Europe and Asia, and you can see the lights of two continents. Walk through the leafy courtyards of Topkapi Palace, where Ottoman sultans once lived, and you can see tourists from around the world.

This is a fascinating crossroads from which to watch the U.S. presidential election campaign. Turks, too, are paying close attention.

A longtime NATO ally, Turkey has a secular constitution and a government that wants to join the European Union; it is also a Muslim country whose elites are debating whether to look more to the East or become more neutral.

Turkey's input will be crucial to future U.S. diplomacy in Iraq and the greater Middle East. Yet only 12 percent of Turks in a 2008 Pew poll had a favorable opinion of the United States. This statistic reflects anger over the Iraq war's impact on Turkey.

So whom do Turks prefer as 44th president of the United States? And what do they want him to do in the Middle East?

I've just spent four days talking with Turkish government officials, diplomats, businessmen, journalists and academics, on a trip organized by Turkey's Economic Policy Research Institute, a nongovernmental think tank, and one thing is clear: Turks are eager for our election season to end.

Turkish liberals and conservatives concur that President Bush's policy failures have sapped America's political, economic and moral authority abroad. They believe the economic crisis was handled badly in Washington in recent weeks because it happened under a lame-duck leader.

They also agree that an absence of U.S. leadership has created a dangerous global vacuum. "Everybody in the world needs a United States which can function and provide some order," said Soli Ozel, foreign-policy adviser to TUSIAD, an association of Turkish industrialists. "If the vacuum continues, other forces will enter."

The favored candidate - who inspired enthusiasm among some I met and left others reluctant - was Sen. Barack Obama. Many businessmen felt more comfortable with Republican John McCain, because he is familiar with Turkey, and with military strategy. Yet even Obama skeptics thought it preferable that the Democrat win.

Their reasoning: An Obama victory would improve Turkish public attitudes toward the United States, because Obama opposes the Iraq war, and is seen as less likely to attack Tehran. Turks who want to keep close relations with America want to see anti-Americanism decline.

"You need Obama to gain a better image," said one prominent businessman who would have preferred McCain (and didn't want his name used). "That image [of the Bush administration] must change. Otherwise, we can't move on."

However, there was strong advice for the next American leader. Over and over I heard the same warning:

Don't leave Iraq too quickly.

I also heard intense criticism of Obama's plan to withdraw all U.S. troops within 16 months.

Turkish officials and diplomats felt such a hasty exit could create a power vacuum that Iran would rush to fill, while returning Iraq to chaos. They prefer a looser deadline that would see Iraq through next year's provincial and national elections.

They also urge that a U.S. withdrawal be embedded in a wider Mideast strategy, one that differs sharply from that of the Bush administration. "Instead of isolating Syria and Iran," one senior government official said, "it's better to have more engagement, in consultation with your allies."

Example: Turkey has been mediating talks between Israel and Syria, despite past Bush efforts to isolate Damascus. An Israel-Syria peace could change the entire dynamic in the region, and shift the balance against Tehran. Ankara believes such diplomacy holds the best prospect for stabilizing the Mideast; Turks say the region can't cope with another war, one with Iran.

No Israel-Syria peace is possible, however, without strong U.S. backing. Turkey's efforts have received only lukewarm support so far from the Bush administration. Obama's outlook seems more in tune with those efforts than does McCain's.

Turkey also wants the next U.S. president to pay more attention to its terrorist problem. Turkish Kurdish separatists, known as the PKK, have found havens in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan, from which they attack targets in Turkey.

This is an explosive issue in U.S.-Turkish relations. Many Turks believe the United States condones PKK attacks, even though the U.S. government started last year to share intelligence with Turkey.

Last week, Turkey made a historic diplomatic overture to Iraq's Kurds in Baghdad. Turks hope closer economic and political ties to Iraq's Kurds will win their cooperation in isolating the PKK. (It would also help if the Ankara government unfroze earlier plans to improve conditions for its own Kurds.)

Support for Turkey's creative diplomacy could help the next U.S. president improve ties with Ankara. Meantime, Turks are waiting almost as eagerly as Americans to learn who that president will be.