Worried by signs of President Bush's soaring popularity among Jews, Democrats launched a coordinated campaign 18 months ago to win back Jewish votes.
In recent interviews with the JTA, top Democrats who attended the meetings disclosed the secret strategy sessions for the first time.
The campaign has three prongs, according to senior Democratic operatives who were involved in its formulation: Stress the Democratic Party's commitment to Israel and raise questions about Bush's own commitment; remind Jewish voters they are much likelier to favor Democratic positions on domestic issues, and marginalize Democrats who alienate Jews.
Ann Lewis, the Jewish former director of communications for the Clinton administration, attended a series of meetings of top Democrats in spring 2002 to discuss what they saw as a deteriorating situation with Jewish voters.
The trigger was a May 5, 2002, "Solidarity with Israel" vote in Congress that drew 21 nay votes--including 18 from Democrats.
"Our discussions following the vote showed we were not as proactive as we should have been" with Jewish voters, Lewis recalled.
The congressional vote wasn't the only issue, however. It was becoming clear that Bush was gearing up for war with Iraq and that most Democratic legislators were less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
In town-hall type meetings, Jewish community officials said, it became evident that Jewish Americans saw Saddam Hussein's potential downfall as a blessing for Israel and wondered why the Democrats weren't on board.
"We were becoming aware of a string of political argument on the other side, which was that people who disagreed with the war on Iraq were somehow soft on terrorism or less reliable on America being a friend of Israel," Lewis said.
The outreach initiative to the Jewish community was seen as a way to counter aggressive new Republican tactics to undermine traditional Jewish financial support for the Democrats.
"The politics were ratcheted up," said a senior Democratic leadership aide.
Some at the Democratic strategy meetings worried that Jews believed the party was taking the community for granted because of its overwhelming support in previous elections.
That notion was reinforced by exit polls after the 2002 midterm elections, which showed a return to Reagan-era numbers when Jews voted Democratic by a 2-1 margin, not the 5-1 or 6-1 ratios of the Clinton era.
The exit polls had unreliably small samples, but Democrats were rattled.
"What we've done since then is to be much more conscious of outreach to the Jewish community," Lewis said, as well as "much more explicit" in support for Israel.
Since then, Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland has taken the lead in reaching out to the Jewish community. His campaign keeps a list of 15 pro-Israel actions Hoyer has taken since March 2003, such as leading a delegation of 29 Democratic legislators to the Jewish state in August.
"We needed to articulate our case. I wanted to articulate our values," Hoyer told JTA in a phone interview.
The senior leadership aide said it was a matter not of reformulating strategy, but of reminding Jewish voters where Democrats stand.
That meant, first of all, allowing little light between the Democrats and Israel. One of Hoyer's first tasks as whip was to retake the Israel solidarity vote. He did so on June 25, and this time it passed the House by a vote of 399-5.
In a speech last month to the America Israel Public Affairs Committee, Hoyer said the group of legislators went to Israel in August "to express solidarity with Israel's cause--freedom and democracy--as well as her determination to survive and succeed as a sanctuary for the Jewish people."
The primary lesson of the trip, Hoyer told AIPAC, was that the West Bank security barrier, "which has engendered great controversy, is viewed by Democrats as a reasonable and acceptable attempt to reduce terrorist attacks."
Hoyer is at the lead of a group of Democrats who have blasted Bush for criticizing the route of the security fence approved by Israel's government. Bush has made clear he wants the West Bank fence to adhere more or less to the pre-1967 boundary between Israel and Jordan.
Hoyer said he plans to be even more vociferous about Bush's linking of the fence to loan guarantees for Israel.
Taking such shots at a president who calls Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a "man of peace" might seem like folly, but Democrats believe Bush is becoming vulnerable.
"Right now, this administration is perceived as very pro-Israel, but that could change," said Mark Mellman, a top Democratic pollster. He cited pressure over the security fence as well as the administration's insistence on adherence to the U.S.-led "road map" peace plan, which many in the pro-Israel community consider moribund.
Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, was present at the spring 2002 strategy meetings. He says there are signs Bush may well get tough with Israel in a second term, when he doesn't have to worry about re-election.
Another pressure point is Bush's perceived warmth toward Saudi Arabia. Virtually every Democratic candidate for president has called for greater scrutiny of the Saudi royal family and its role in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Lewis raised the issue in her own speech to the AIPAC annual meeting last month.
Republicans say they're eager for a fight on Israel and the Middle East.
"The president and this party are significantly head-and-shoulders above anyone running on the Democratic side right now" when it comes to Israel, said Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Stories about Bush family ties to the Saudis or threats that Bush will emulate his father's coolness toward Israel won't work, Brooks said.
"That's the same thing they tried to scare the Jewish community with in 2000," he said. "There is not one leader in the Jewish community who believes that."
Some Democrats indeed are wary of tackling Bush on the Middle East, and say it's enough to tell Jewish voters that Democrats share Bush's commitment to the Jewish state.
"Democrats don't have to be better than Republicans on Israel, they just have to be as good," said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic political adviser who attended the spring 2002 meetings. "So long as Democrats are competitive, it invariably shifts to domestic issues, where we beat them hands down."
There is little reluctance, however, in challenging the Bush administration on domestic issues, a key element of the strategy to emerge from the spring 2002 meetings.
Hoyer said that case was an easy sell.
"The commitment to the diversity of our nation, ensuring that we invest in the education and health of our people," Hoyer said, are values that American Jews still hold and issues on which the Democrats will continue to pursue Jewish support.
Forman also said Jews naturally would vote Democratic.
"Look at the demographics of people who vote Democrat: People who don't go to church often, with a graduate level of education, who don't have guns, who live in the inner suburbs or cities," Forman said. "This should be a Democratic constituency."
John Zogby, a leading Washington pollster, makes the same case. Recent polling shows 75 percent Jewish support for the Democrats, Zogby said.
"The thing that comes out loud and clear is that while Israel is of tremendous importance to Jewish voters, they're not one-dimensional, they still are a liberal-Democrat core constituency, they're very much anti-Bush on domestic programs and they did not enthusiastically support the Iraq war," Zogby said.
He cited one question from his latest national poll. Overall, he said, 55 percent of Americans believe Bush won the 2000 election legitimately, while 38 percent believe Bush stole it in Florida.
Among Jews, those numbers are reversed: some 71 percent believe it was stolen, and only 22 percent think Bush was elected legitimately.
But Brooks said foreign policy would be key in the first presidential election since the Sept. 11 attacks.
"Those that believe and want to believe that they're going to run a campaign on domestic issues are mistaken," Brooks said. "This will be a foreign-policy election."
That's especially true since Bush is faring better than expected on domestic issues, Brooks said, given the rebounding economy and the president's involvement in issues Jews care about, such as education.
Some Democrats believe it will be a challenge to move Jews away from their preoccupation with Israel.
A Howard Dean candidacy will be especially challenging, Democrats acknowledge, because of Dean's call several months ago for U.S. "even-handedness" in the Middle East. Those remarks continue to dog the former Vermont governor, widely considered the front-runner in the Democratic primaries.
Dean has said his remarks were misinterpreted and that he merely meant greater U.S. involvement in resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Hoyer mobilized the signatories of a letter to Dean from congressional Democrats asking the candidate for clarification.
"I'm not at all interested in being neutral between democracy and totalitarianism, terrorism and self-defense," Hoyer said.
Hoyer says that now he is satisfied with Dean's clarification, and the senior Democratic leadership aide says that if Dean wins the nomination, Hoyer would focus on educating him on Israel.
That has been Hoyer's strategy with Democratic newcomers. In fact, more than a third of the delegation that visited Israel in August were first-termers.
When Democrats won't come aboard on Jewish issues, the party has a different strategy: Drive them out.
"Only on the extreme left edge of the Democratic party, like the extreme right edge" of the Republican Party, "do you see anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, and we have to stamp it out," Forman said.
Two virulently anti-Israel congressmen--Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and Earl Hilliard of Alabama--organized support against the 2002 solidarity vote that triggered the new Democratic outreach to the Jews. Jewish money helped opponents defeat them in 2002 party primaries, and Hoyer is not shy about reminding Jews of that success.
As the campaign against Bush heats up, Democrats are going to be busy making sure U.S. Jews--and voters generally--remember their achievements.