A veteran professional Jew in one of the main organizations of American Jewry recently surveyed the balance of power between President George W. Bush and the Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry.

"It will be a very close race all the way to the finish line," he predicted. "So close that on Election Night we'll go to sleep - if we can fall asleep - without knowing which of the two won. But at the end of the night we'll wake up again with Bush."

Three months less a week are left until Tuesday, November 2, and that view is shared by many experienced Washington hands - at least among those ready to make a prediction in the middle of the summer recess, which is characterized by public indifference to politics, and before the determined duel is really launched following the Republican convention at the end of the month.

Until now, the contenders have looked like shadow boxers in a training camp, practicing tactics, checking weak points, keeping the big blows for the fall. "In marketing terms," Bush's chief of staff, Andrew Card, is quoted as saying, "you don't introduce a new product in August" - though it was in the Iraqi context that he said it.

Kerry is not the polar opposite of the current president. The differences between them are measured in nuances, not in essences, and the struggle this time is more like Carter against Ford than Johnson against Goldwater, or Nixon against McGovern. It is possible to go as far back as 1940, to Franklin Delano Roosevelt against Wendell Wilkie, for a race between a sitting president in a time of world war, against a rival who presented an amazingly similar view that was in complete contradiction to his party's traditional isolationism.

Bush against Kerry is an internal final on the fields of Yale (Kerry was on the hockey team, with FBI director Robert Mueller; Bush, two years younger, made do with cheerleading.) Two of the aristocracy of money and connections are competing against each other, with the dispute over the details. On the Iraq issue, where Bush is more vulnerable - unless something goes wrong in the economy - Kerry's most bitter criticism dealt with the protection of the troops: why weren't they equipped with ceramic vests and more Hummer jeeps?

The real differences, rolled into the verbiage, are so infinitesimal, so similar to the internal debates in any administration, that it is not difficult to imagine Kerry as Bush's secretary of state, like William Cohen, a Republican, was Clinton's secretary of defense. In the same way, Colin Powell could be Kerry's secretary of state, the way he was chairman of the joint chiefs for both Bush Sr. and Clinton, leading the camp that had reservations about military intervention, against a combative Madeleine Albright. The main difference between those who are a little to the left of the center and those a little right of the center is in domestic policy, economics and social affairs, which is largely in the hands of others - the chairman of the federal reserve, the Supreme Court, the Congress.

Not since John Kennedy, and for decades before him, has a senator been elected president. Americans prefer their presidents with executive experience - a vice president or a governor - over a legislator whose strength was in his mouth and weaknesses are in his votes. Except for Bush Sr., Reagan's vice president, only governors have been elected since 1976, even when they faced incumbent presidents (Carter-Ford, Reagan-Carter, Clinton-Bush).

The formula "Nonetheless, Bush," after all the calculations and considerations, not only comes down to the anticipated result but also the recommended vote for people who care about Israel. From the selfish perspective of Israel, which is close to the general American perspective but not identical to it, Bush in his second term will be better than his challenger. The slow transition to a new administration will waste the precedent-setting momentum of the evacuation of the settlements, which anyway is in doubt because of the fragility of Sharon's position.

Appearing before activists from one of the black community organizations here two weeks ago, Bush proposed to the audience - which was made up almost entirely of supporters of Democratic candidates - to depart from their tradition and signal to the Democrats that they are not in their pockets. That's good advice for the Jews, as well, and it matches the whispering of the Jewish organization men and women, who are careful to avoid any blatant, divisive intervention in the campaign. As far as they are concerned, the best result for Israel and American Jewry will be Bush's re-election with a very slim majority, and a return of Democratic control of the two houses of Congress. That would achieve a balance, control and understanding in both parties, ahead of the next elections, that they should continue to court Israel's supporters.