Among Jewish Democrats, however, it's no race, insiders in the fundraising community say. While Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has generated considerable excitement, the years Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has spent focusing on Israel and other issues of concern to the nation's largest Jewish community puts her firmly in front.
"It's experience," said Lonnie Kaplan, a major pro-Israel fundraiser. "It's clear to me that she's the best candidate the Democrats have. On domestic issues, they're all the same, but on foreign policy, she has such experience and knowledge and the willingness to act."
Numbers have yet to be properly crunched, but insiders tracking donations say Clinton leads among Jewish donors, especially among those whose emphasis is purely pro-Israel.
"A lot of the candidates are good," said Ben Chouake, a New Jersey doctor who heads NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee that brought 700 activists to Washington in early May to lobby for Israel. "But I hope the strongest people on our issue win -- and among Democrats, Hillary Clinton has the strongest record on our issue."
Clinton also leads among Jewish funders who have a range of commitments, in addition to Israel, said Steve Rabinowitz, a top Democratic consultant in Washington.
"The overwhelming amount of the establishment money is with Hillary," Rabinowitz said, in part because her husband, former President Bill Clinton, is such a well-known quantity. "Hillary is in a special situation -- her longstanding relationship with the community, her husband's relationship with the community, her husband's fundraising prowess."
However, Obama is making significant inroads, and Rabinowitz said he may pose a significant challenge to Clinton among the Jewish grass roots.
"The phenomenon that is Obama has certainly penetrated the Jewish community," he said. "Among small givers, first-time givers, rank-and-file supporters, there's tremendous interest in Obama."
Major Jewish donors also are backing former Democratic Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and second tier of candidates, including Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, because of their loyalty to Israel and Jewish issues over the years. Richardson had a solid pro-Israel record during the 1980s and early 1990s when he was a congressman.
Michael Adler, a South Florida developer who is chairman of the National Jewish Democratic Committee (NJDC), is leading the Jewish backing for Biden. Marc Stanley, NJDC deputy chairman from Austin, Texas, leads Jewish fundraising for fellow trial lawyer Edwards. Micah Green, former head of the Bond Market Association, backs Dodd, who is known for his closeness to bankers. Steve Bittel, a South Florida mortgager in the petroleum business, is in Richardson's camp.
Stanley said Edwards, who has boned up on foreign policy since his 2004 run for vice president on the ticket of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), is appealing to Jewish funders because of his domestic emphasis on alleviating poverty, a key issue for Jewish philanthropists.
"If you listen to what John Edwards says, he's advocating tikkun olam," the Jewish concept of repairing the world, Stanley said, rattling off a long list of Jewish backers he has successfully solicited.
Support for the longer shots is expected and even welcome, according to those backing the front-runners.
"They are all people who in their congressional careers have been partners with the American Jewish community," said Steve Grossman, a Boston-based marketing magnate who is Clinton's principal Jewish backer. "So it's appropriate that leaders of the American Jewish community support these candidates, even if the conventional wisdom says they may not have a great chance."
Rabinowitz raised another motive: Longer shots offer bigger rewards if they defy expectations and win.
"There's a motivation among some to not go with the front-runner because it'll be a bigger payoff," he said.
Obama has encountered difficulties with establishment givers because of his approach to the Middle East. He says frankly that Israel also must contribute to reviving the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.
Peace cannot be achieved "at the price of compromising Israel's security, and the United States government and an Obama presidency cannot ask Israel to take risks with respect to its security," he said last month at an NJDC forum for presidential candidates. "But it can ask Israel to say that it is still possible for us to allow more than just this status quo of fear, terror, division."
That should not turn off Jewish support, said Alan Solomont, a Boston venture capitalist and philanthropist who is Obama's principal fundraiser.
"We've heard for some years that George Bush was the greatest friend that Israel ever had," Solomont said. "Let's not forget that some people were sold that phony bill of goods. He has made an outrageous mess of the situation in the Middle East that is clearly dangerous to the United States and to Israel."
Obama's promise of change trumps Clinton's experience, Solomont said.
"People are looking for someone with new ideas who will challenge the status quo," he said. "That's why he's attractive to the Jewish community elsewhere. This isn't to diminish Hillary Clinton's competence or leadership in any way, but there's no one who hasn't seen Barack Obama and not felt moved and energized and good that this guy's running for president."
Yet it is Clinton's determined cultivation of the Jewish community that pushes her ahead, and not just because she represents the nation's largest Jewish community in New York.
Clinton has spent her six years in the Senate reaching out to Jewish groups on nearly every domestic and foreign issue that the community embraces. She was a leader in getting homeland security funds to Jewish institutions and has taken the lead in demanding changes in Palestinian textbooks that would reflect the reality of Israel's existence.
She makes a point of speaking to national Jewish groups that hold conferences in Washington before delegates ascend to the Hill to lobby.Clinton's relative hawkishness doesn't hurt her with Jewish donors the way it has afflicted her appeal to the Democratic Party's left. No one says it outright, but her readiness in 2002 to back President Bush on the Iraq War stands her in good stead with pro-Israel givers who want an American leader who would back a military strike against Iran if nothing else succeeds in dissuading it from pursuing nuclear weapons -- the "willingness to act" to which Kaplan alluded.
Clinton also has years of domestic policy experience on her side, Grossman said, noting the resonance that her premier issue -- health care -- has among Jews.
"The great unfinished agenda has been uninsured American families, women and children," he said. "That's a cause to which Hillary Clinton has devoted her life and career."