COLUMBUS, Ohio — An Ohio senator who observed Ukraine’s presidential election this weekend said Monday the experience he had in the crisis-torn European nation was inspiring and he viewed it as a legitimate election.

Twenty-one candidates competed Sunday to become Ukraine’s next leader. Early returns showed that 48-year-old billionaire Petro Poroshenko was leading with about 54 percent of the vote.

U.S. Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio said he visited six polling locations in the suburbs of the capital of Kiev and was inspired by the determination of the Ukrainian people to vote. Several locations had big crowds, he said, though he did not see anyone leave lines out of frustration.

“People were so eager to cast their vote and to have a say in the future of their country,” Portman told Ohio reporters in a conference call on Monday.

His office said the trip with other lawmakers was part of an effort to strengthen U.S.-Ukraine cooperation through the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Some polling locations were closed on the country’s east side due to threats and violence. But, Portman said, “It certainly shouldn’t delegitimize an election that otherwise had very high turnout and appears to have been run in a fair and efficient manner.”

Portman said he declined an opportunity to meet with Poroshenko on the evening before the election, because he felt it was important that American observers there not take sides.

“We did not have a favored candidate,” said Portman, a Republican. “What we favored was a fair process and the opportunity for the Ukrainian people to exercise their rights and elect who they wanted.”

The election came three months after President Viktor Yanukovych was chased from office following months of street protests.

Portman said he met with several Ukrainian officials, whom he described as eager for the country to move forward.

The senator spent Memorial Day in Poland, where he visited with U.S. military personnel. He planned to return to Ohio on Tuesday.

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