WASHINGTON - As details of the visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran to the United Nations this week began to spread, a pair of presidential candidates presented themselves as a de facto welcoming committee, albeit with two distinctly different postures.
Democratic Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut suggested in a press release that it is time to send a special envoy to Iran, while Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, declared that Ahmadinejad should be denied an entry visa to the United States and handed instead an indictment for genocide.
Now, as Ahmadinejad prepares to address Columbia University today and the UN General Assembly tomorrow, Iran has taken center stage in the US presidential campaign.
Like Dodd and Romney, other candidates have chosen to make Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions, interference in Iraq, and often hostile president a test case for their differing approaches to dealing with hostile nations.
The result appears to be a hardening of positions on the two extremes, with an emphasis on heightened diplomatic outreach among many Democrats, and belligerent talk and confrontation from many Republicans.
The Bush administration's current approach, as explained by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice Wednesday, employs both "a set of incentives and a set of teeth."
"My sense in general is that the Democrats are seeking more engagement with Iran, which is something we're doing already to some degree," said Morris Amitay, a lobbyist and former director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. "The Republicans want more of a threat of the use of force, which is something we're also doing to some degree."
As the lessons of Iraq have become obscured by failures in execution, candidates have latched on to the Iranian crisis as an opportunity to display their foreign-policy values. Yet the Iran debate has also served as a venue to relitigate the run-up to a war already underway: to either stand by a doctrine of preemptive force or to insist on diplomacy as an alternative path.
"Iraq is now affecting everything," said Ray Takeyh, author of "Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic." "Iraq is the context in which foreign-policy debates take place now."
Republicans have moved gingerly in assessing the Bush administration's current approach to Iran, but their policy recommendations are loaded with implicit criticisms of the White House. Former mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York has repeatedly emphasized that Washington should be more clear - "Ronald Reagan-like clear," he stressed recently - in its warnings to Tehran.
"The policy of the United States of America should be very, very clear that we will use any option we believe is in our best interest to stop them from becoming a nuclear power. And that we're not going to allow that to happen," Giuliani said Wednesday in London.
He added that the United States and its allies should confront Iran with the "absolute assurance that we will - if they get to the point where they are going to become a nuclear power - we will prevent them or we'll set them back five or 10 years. And that is not said as a threat. That should be said as a promise."
Giuliani's "promise" was a bold one from a would-be commander-in-chief. It came shortly after the release of "World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism," a new book by Giuliani's senior foreign-policy adviser Norman Podhoretz in which the proto-neoconservative scholar argues for a preemptive military strike against Iran.
Mostly, however, Republican candidates have been waging war against Iran with an arsenal full of symbolic gestures. As governor looking ahead to a presidential candidacy, Romney last year refused to offer protection by state troopers to Mohammad Khatami, Ahmadinejad's predecessor who was regarded as a moderate reformer.
After Ahmadinejad announced his plans to visit New York, Romney wrote to the United Nations imploring the body to shut out him out - the type of swagger more likely to be practiced by a candidate than a sitting president.
"I don't think any administration would actually go ahead with that," said Peter Rodman, a former assistant secretary of defense under President Bush.
Attempting to manage Ahmadinejad's itinerary in New York this week has become a preoccupation of Republican candidates.
After reports that the Iranian president had asked to visit the World Trade Center site, Romney - joined subsequently by his rivals - called upon local officials to deny him access to the site. When Columbia University invited Ahmadinejad to speak there, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona asked the institution to rescind the offer.
"A man who is directing the maiming and killing of Americans troops should not be given an invitation to speak at an American university," McCain said.
Senator Hillary Clinton of New York joined the crowd opposed to a World Trade Center visit, but Clinton - who has said that "no option should be taken off the table" in stopping Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons - and her fellow Democrats have been more interested in enunciating the options of statecraft that they would prefer.
"Now is the time for tough and sustained diplomacy backed by real pressure," Senator Barack Obama of Illinois said in a major foreign-policy speech two weeks ago in Des Moines, offering the threat of "much tighter sanctions" unless Iran stepped away from its nuclear program.
So far, the biggest contretemps on any issue in the Democratic primary - between Clinton and Obama over the question of who in their administrations would be sent to negotiate with the leaders of Iran and other unfriendly nations - has been over the details of diplomacy, not the principle.
Clinton described Obama as being "naive" for saying he would be willing to meet personally with Ahmadinejad; he likened her hard-line resistance to such a meeting to "Bush-Cheney Lite."
As the Iraq war has lost popularity, the foreign-policy philosophies it reflected - an aggressive posture toward states allegedly developing nuclear weapons or supporting terrorists, and a willingness to attack them preemptively - has lost popularity, as well.
A November 2006 poll conducted by WorldPublicOpinion.org indicated that 65 percent of Americans thought the Bush administration has been too quick to use military force. That figure was about twice the percentage agreeing with a similar question asked by a CBS News/New York Times poll in April 2003.
Skepticism over the use of force varies by party, according to a survey in December by the Program on International Policy Attitudes at the University of Maryland.
When asked whether the United States should deal with Iran by building better relations or implied threats of force, 88 percent of Democrats selected diplomacy, compared with 56 percent of Republicans. Forty percent of Republicans chose the military option.
"On the Democratic side, across the board, there seems to be a sense that this is a place for robust diplomacy," Takeyh said.
Yet the debate over how to proceed with Iran is likely to be a circumstantial one.
"It hasn't really started to gel," Rodman said. "We're waiting to see the outcome of diplomacy. If this diplomacy has failed, then what do we do?"