Like two surly dinner guests who won't let an argument go, President Bush and Sen. John Kerry won't get off topic when they take their case to U.S. Jews: It's all Israel all the time.
The prospect of swaying likely voters in a handful of battleground states has brought unprecedented attention to Jewish voters this election season, yet the discussion overwhelmingly has focused on Israel, an issue that no longer pushes Jewish buttons the way it once did.
In increasingly bitter exchanges, each campaign's surrogates and advertisements paint the opposing candidate as coddling terrorists, if not imperiling Israel's very existence.
David Harris, the American Jewish Committee's (AJC) executive director, said the parties still perceive Israel as a potent issue among Jews, even as polls by the AJC and others show the Jewish state declining in importance among Jewish voters. Harris said the strategy is to nudge Jewish voters back into believing Israel is in danger -- thereby returning the issue to top priority status.
"Jewish voters want to be satisfied the candidate understands the importance of the U.S.-Israel issue and will work to strengthen it," Harris said. "If the adversary can puncture a hole in that belief, it may cause some voters to rethink their original positions."
In its final sweep before Election Day on Nov. 2, each side was attempting just such a jab.
"I will make Israel safer than George W. Bush is, because I will stand up to those countries that are still supporting Hamas and Hezbollah," the Democratic senator said in Florida on Sunday.
At the same time, his campaign distributed an appeal from legal scholar Alan Dershowitz that called Bush's Middle East policies "disastrous" for Israel.
For its part, Bush's campaign distributed a Washington Post column by Charles Krauthammer suggesting that Kerry's plan to assert control in Iraq is to "sacrifice Israel" to Arab and European nations. The notion got further reinforcement by New York Times columnist William Safire on Monday, when he asked Jewish voters who tend to vote Democratic to "give a little added weight" to Israel's security and vote for Bush.
Richard Cohen used his own Washington Post column on Tuesday to hit back: "No doubt, George Bush is a true friend of Israel. But so was Bill Clinton and so would be John Kerry."
"The issue is not who cares more for Israel, but who can be effective in reducing the violence and bring about a peaceful solution," he continued. "So far, that's not George Bush."
Such high-profile appeals -- from the candidates and their surrogates, made in the country's prime Op-Ed real estate -- underscored the weight each side accords the Jewish vote.
That was also evident in this week's final push in Florida, culminating a monthlong sweep of Jewish communities in swing states.
Republicans were running their Democratic Jewish trophy, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, through a grueling tour of synagogues and Jewish community centers in the southern part of the state on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Kerry campaign was bringing former President Clinton; Dershowitz; Kerry's Jewish brother, Cameron; TV comic Larry David; and an array of U.S. representatives into Fort Lauderdale and Miami on the same days.
Additionally, each side made one of its top foreign policy officials available to an American Israel Public Affairs Committee summit in Hollywood, Fla. Richard Holbrooke made Kerry's case and Condoleezza Rice, Bush's national security adviser, spoke for her boss.
"Whoever wins on Nov. 2, the key role of Jewish voters must be seen as a vitally important fact of this year's election," Harris said.
Throughout the grueling and often contentious campaign, the candidates at times have gone into contortions to make their Israel bona fides.
Israel was one of a small elite of nations that made it into nomination acceptance speeches at both conventions. That didn't stop each side from accusing the other of not mentioning it enough -- although there never has been a convention standard for mentioning Israel.
Bush and Kerry each brought Israel into the debates, managing to squeeze mentions into questions about getting troops out of Iraq, although they were never asked about it.
The sometimes vicious back-and-forth is a long way from March, when a top Bush campaign official said that the campaign would pretty much leave Kerry alone on the topic, and Kerry campaign officials liked to say they were "as good" on Israel as Bush and would focus instead on domestic issues, where Democrats tend to trump Republicans among Jews.
Yet as Bush's lead in the polls started to melt with the summer and the importance of Jewish votes in battleground states increased, his Jewish campaigners switched to the Israel issue, where they believed his unprecedented closeness to Ariel Sharon's government made him almost unassailable.
The gloves soon came off.
A passage from a 1997 book by Kerry describing Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat as traveling the road from outlaw to statesman -- a conventional wisdom at the time -- was pared down by the campaign to omit the "outlaw" part. "Kerry called Arafat a statesman" became fodder for Bush partisans and reporters at Bush-friendly newspapers like the New York Post.
Another sign of the importance that Republicans assigned to the Israel issue was a Republican strategy document prepared in July by former GOP House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia.
One section is devoted to Kerry on Israel. It rehashes his 1997 reference to Arafat and says that Kerry expressed two "precisely opposite" reactions to Israel's West Bank security barrier, although Kerry and Bush both changed their attitude to the fence when Israel changed its route.
The Bush campaign's rhetoric reached such a pitch that by the end of August, senior campaign staffer and Bush's former Jewish liaison, Tevi Troy, was telling college students at the party convention in New York that Bush's re-election was a "life-or-death" matter for the Jews.
Democratic posturing never achieved such a fever, but Kerry's campaign was not immune to distortions. One campaign trope is that Bush did nothing to stem Saudi funding of terrorists, although terrorism experts agree that the kingdom is rolling back the funding precisely because of effective pressure from the administration.
At the same time, the Kerry campaign sought to reassure Jewish voters that he will always be guided first by Israel in pursuing an international coalition to resolve the situation in Iraq and bring peace to the region.
Such pitches on Israel defy two recent major polls that showed Israel dropping as a priority for U.S. Jews. The Jewish state ranked sixth as a factor in presidential voting in a July poll by Democratic pollster Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, behind issues like terrorism, the economy, the Iraq war and health care.
In the AJC's August poll, it ranked last when respondents were asked what they thought was the most important component of their Jewish identity.
Yet the pitches may make sense for the Republicans in the sense of the party having little else to offer the Jews, said Theodore Mann, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
"It's a card they had to play, knowing as they do -- correctly -- that Israelis prefer Bush and thinking as they do -- incorrectly -- that Jews are one-issue voters," said Mann, who is on the board of the Israel Policy Forum, a group that supports U.S. engagement in the peace process.
Republicans, of course, reject that, noting that some Jews share the Republican agenda on economic and social issues as well. Republicans also may have had in mind the Jewish vote in Florida, a state Bush cannot afford to lose. The community is weighted to the elderly, and older Jews rank Israel higher among their priorities.
Bush's apparent inability to crack the traditional 3-1 Jewish support for Democrats is frustrating some Republicans. The latest polls, taken in late summer, show Kerry winning anywhere between 69 percent and 75 percent of the Jewish vote, with Bush getting between 22 percent and 24 percent.
Senior party officials berated the community at the party convention for not "getting" Bush's support for Israel, and Jewish Bush supporters got the message.
"Why is it that so many American Jews appear unconcerned about Israel's parlous condition?" asked an editorial in a pamphlet distributed to Jewish voters by a conservative group, the Jewish Political Education Foundation. "When judging a candidate, they prefer focusing on health care, Social Security, abortion rights, funding of stem cell researchl.... What can one say to complacent Jewish souls suffering from cognitive dissonance?"
Others said the campaign's final, pitched weeks were bound to run into excesses.
"I was thinking if Jewish votes were in play, John Kerry would have been bar mitzvahed this weekend," David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, said on CNN over the weekend.
Brooks might be unaware that the campaigns believe Jewish votes are indeed in play -- and that Kerry might be ready for his haftarah.
"This morning I woke up to hearing John Kerry on the radio saying, "Am Yisrael Chai," Harris said, referring to a speech in Florida where Kerry reaffirmed his support for Israel by using the Hebrew phrase for "The people of Israel live."
"I thought I was still dreaming," Harris said.