Petr David Josek, Associated Press
Czech President Vaclav Klaus, left, shakes hands with fellow candidate Jan Svejnar before a pre-election debate in Prague last week.

ANN ARBOR, Michigan — As the U.S. presidential race heats up, a University of Michigan professor is focusing his attention on an election of a different kind.

Jan Svejnar, who has spent years guiding students in his role as a public policy and economics professor, says he's ready to make a real-world impact as the next president of the Czech Republic.

"Being a president is sort of the utmost public policy one could have," he said. "It kind of naturally dovetails the kind of professional work I do."

Svejnar, 55, served as an economic adviser to former Czech President Vaclav Havel and has Havel's backing, but he faces an uphill battle in the Feb. 8 election for the largely ceremonial post.

Not only is Svejnar trying to unseat an incumbent, Vaclav Klaus, he also is battling against criticism of his U.S. ties, which aren't viewed as an asset in the race.

His friends and colleagues on Michigan's Ann Arbor campus, however, are thrilled with Svejnar's candidacy.

"People think it's cool that a professor — somebody that they know — could be directly involved in running a country," said Nick Powers, an economics Ph.D. student at Michigan who studied under Svejnar.

For Svejnar, it all began in Prague, the city of his birth. He left for the U.S. in 1970 to study at Cornell University. He later moved on to Princeton University for graduate work in economics.

Svejnar was hired as a professor at Cornell and in 1981 became a U.S. citizen.

He was forced to relinquish his Czech citizenship, because he was not permitted at the time to be a citizen of both countries. But the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 allowed Svejnar to become more engaged in Europe.

Svejnar and his wife, Katherine Terrell, lived in the Czech Republic in 1992 with their two children and returned each summer until the kids got older, Terrell said.

"Jan himself has been there easily one week every six weeks since 1990," Terrell said.

Svejnar established an economic institute in Prague in the 1990s that offers an American-style Ph.D. in economics. He also has been a consultant to the World Bank and an economic adviser to the Czech government.

Svejnar had to reject a proposal from Havel to be prime minister in 1997 because he was not a Czech citizen. He regained his citizenship in 2001 and says now is the right time to make a run for the presidency.

"One doesn't get offered the opportunity quite often, naturally," Svejnar said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "The opportunity arose. I thought about it quite a lot. I talked to my colleagues, deans at the university and (the school's) President Mary Sue Coleman and finally decided I would try for it."

Terrell says she and her husband don't have high expectations for a victory, but view his run as a means to have an impact on the political process in the Czech Republic.

"Jan entered this knowing that it was a very low possibility that he would win," said Terrell, a University of Michigan business professor. "Jan has been really encouraged by how people have received his message. If he doesn't win, he's at least opened dialogue about a new way of doing politics there, less corrupt, and more open to the European Union."

The Czech people do not vote for president. Instead, the race will be decided by a secret vote of the bicameral Parliament.

Of the five major parliamentary parties, Svejnar is supported by the opposition Social Democrats and the Greens, who are part of a three-party governing coalition.

Klaus, 66, is backed by the ruling conservative Civic Democratic Party. Another coalition party, the Christian Democrats, are split over the vote and despite a recommendation from the party leadership to vote for Klaus, some Christian Democratic lawmakers have said they are prepared to support Svejnar.

The last major party — the Communists — have yet to announce their candidate.

It appears that for Svejnar to win, he will need the support of Communist lawmakers, who say they are unhappy with Svejnar's U.S. citizenship.

Svejnar says he will drop his American citizenship if elected president.

"I can't imagine that the Czech Republic would be led by someone who comes here (as if) it was a safari destination," Interior Minister Ivan Langer, one of the deputy heads of the Civic Democratic Party, told the Czech weekly Tyden. "Vaclav Klaus equals for me the Czech Republic while Jan Svejnar is a hunter who arrives here just to do his shooting and have fun."

Svejnar is on sabbatical from Michigan this year, and his teaching as well as his work as director of the school's International Policy Center have been put on hold.

Terrell, a Washington, D.C., native, says she would like to live in Prague as first lady and wants to advance an education agenda.

As for the couple's children, Terrell says New York investment banker Daniel, 26, and 21-year-old Michigan senior Laura are "very excited at the prospect of their father becoming the next Czech president," but don't plan to move to Europe should Svejnar win the election.

Contributing: Karel Janicek in Prague