The 2008 Presidential race went into higher gear on the day after the Congressional elections that mark the midway point in President George W. Bush's second term. The potential candidates have reached a critical stage, perhaps the most difficult of all: They must now decide whether they really want to run altogether.

U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican-Arizona) and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) have taken the first step and have set up an exploratory committee that will enable them to move forward without officially declaring their intentions. Some have already decided to pull out: for example, Sen. Russ Feingold (Democrat- Wisconsin). Others, like George Allen (R- Virginia), who lost his seat in the Senate, were eliminated from the list as they have no chance of getting into the race. Former governor Mark Warner (D-Virginia) has also announced that he does not intend to run.

However, many candidates have not yet indicated their plans. There is still time. In any case, this month's list remains a long one in the third round of ranking presidential candidates.

The panel has given some interesting answers that should be investigated further, especially when the 2008 candidates are compared with the last two presidents, Bush and Clinton. Here is what the panelists were asked to do: Imagine that Bush and Clinton - both of whom have been highly praised for their deep friendship for Israel - are your benchmarks. Each of them is ranked 6 on the "Good for Israel" scale. Now compare each of the candidates with either Clinton or Bush - Democrats with Clinton and Republicans with Bush.

Here are the results: The panel believes that there is only a slim chance that the next president will be as pro-Israel as Bush or Clinton. Most of the candidates - in fact, nearly all of them - received less than 6, that is, a lower score than Bush and Clinton ( see table). Only three scored higher (they also head the monthly survey) - Giuliani, McCain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R). However, two "caveat emptors" are in order. First, none of these three seems to have much of a chance of becoming the Republican Party's presidential candidate. Furthermore, the panel was not unanimous in its assessment of them. Their being assigned a higher score than Bush stems from the fact that two of the panelists gave them a very impressive score that skyrocketed them to the top.

The rest of the candidates trail behind Bush/Clinton. This is an interesting - and a realistic - forecast. Israel must not assume a priori that the White House will always be occupied by someone as sympathetic to Israel as these two presidents have been. It is logical to assume that future presidents might be less pro-Israel, less emotionally linked to the Jewish state, and Israel must know how to maneuver in its relationship with them.

In the overall ranking, no major changes have occurred. Giuliani has consolidated his position as a leading potential candidate and it is doubtful whether he will lose that standing. Next on the list are Gingrich, McCain, Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York), and former Vice President Al Gore (D). McCain and Hillary Clinton naturally arouse the lion's share of public interest because they are currently the leading candidates in their respective parties.

Sixth place goes to New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson (D), who has not yet announced whether he will run. This is the second time Richardson has been ranked sixth, after having started out in eighth place in the first survey. Some of the panelists, whom I asked for an explanation of his high ranking, know him personally. Dore Gold worked with him at the United Nations, Alon Pinkas knows him personally, and Dan Halperin met him when he was Energy Secretary. The panel considers him a Democrat who understands Israel's problems and needs in an era full of complex challenges.

One candidate whose popularity among the panelists has been steadily plummeting is Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (R). As the picture from Washington seems to indicate, Rice is still loyal to her "realpolitik" roots, which she acquired from the Bush-Baker-Scowcroft school of thought (she worked with all three in the early 1990s). The panel's attitude toward her and the possibility of her being a warm friend of Israel has therefore cooled. Rice started out rather high, in ninth place, after which she sank to 12th. This month she is number 15. Apparently, that fact is not too important because her chances of running seem rather slim.

Professor Camil Fuchs, who crunched the panelists' scores, has pointed out an interesting trend: The scores are dropping. The panel started off in high spirits; however, its enthusiasm has since waned. Even Giuliani, who began as - and remains - the front runner, has been getting progressively lower scores: from 8.75 to 8.63 to the present 8.25. Still, he is outpacing the others for the moment.