Dennis Ross, former special US envoy to the Middle East, came to this battleground state Tuesday night to use the weight of his reputation and experience to urge fellow Jewish voters to back Barack Obama.
But the first question he was asked had to do with Obama's associations with another Middle East figure, Rashid Khalidi.
The McCain campaign is using Obama's link to the Palestinian advocate and former Chicago university professor to hammer away at Obama, and demanded Wednesday that the Los Angeles Times release a video in its possession showing Obama giving a toast at a good-bye party for his Chicago colleague.
"Among other things, Israel was described there as the perpetrator of terrorism rather than the victim," Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin said at a rally in Ohio. "What we don't know is how Barack Obama responded to these slurs on a country that he professes to support." And McCain told a radio station, "If there was a tape of John McCain in a neo-Nazi outfit, I think the treatment of the issue would be slightly different."
The newspaper, which published the story in April, has refused to release the video because, according to a widely reported comment from editor Russ Stanton, "The Los Angeles Times did not publish the videotape because it was provided to us by a confidential source who did so on the condition that we not release it."
The Obama campaign has faced questions about the candidate's associations throughout the course of the campaign, but the McCain camp has ratcheted up the pressure on some of these relationships in the past few days as the race enters the home stretch.
So far, the strategy doesn't seem to be paying off, as John McCain is trailing significantly in most national polls, and surveys released Wednesday suggest that even in his home state of Arizona, he only leads his rival by a couple of points.
The issue of how close Obama has been to some on the extreme left has resonated in certain pockets of the Jewish community, where there is skepticism about his views on Israel and Iran, though polls have charted a steady climb in Jewish support in recent weeks.
He is now in range of the three-quarters of the Jewish vote Democrats have enjoyed in recent presidential contests.
Ross, holding one of the final forums to woo Jewish voters before Tuesday's vote, stressed his strong belief in Obama as a supporter of Israel, a smart negotiator when it comes to Iran and someone who he thinks would reinvigorate America's relationships with its allies.
Though much of the crowd was supportive of his comments, he still faced skeptics who suggested that ties to figures like Khalidi reveal more about where Obama stands on Israel.
In response, Ross described Khalidi as "a Palestinian-American who has a strong set of views" who doesn't advise Obama or influence his views.
"He's someone that he has known. I know him too. Because I know him does that somehow reflect on me?" he asked.
He then stressed his own Israel bona fides, arguing that Obama "gets" the shared values and strategic importance of the US-Israel relationship and that if he didn't, Ross wouldn't be supporting him.
His remarks satisfied Leslie Hecht-Leavitt, a Democrat more impressed with Obama's association with Ross than his connection to Khalidi, even though she abhors the latter's views on Israel.
"These people don't live in a vacuum. They associate with all people. It's the nature of politics, " Hecht-Leavitt said of politicians.
"To try to portray them as evil people because they've spoken with a person they absolutely disagree with is absurd. If he's appointed Dennis Ross as his senior advisor, that means a lot more than someone he's spoken to or had lunch with."
But Marcie Waranch, who asked the question, left feeling less than reassured about Obama's true convictions.
"I have questions" about where Obama stands on Israel, she said. "I know where McCain is."
An independent, she came to Tuesday's forum unsure whom she would vote for, preferring Obama on social issues but McCain when it comes to Israel, her top issue. She was impressed by Ross's statements on the thorny issue of Iran but felt Ross was "playing down" the character and past of someone who has expressed extremely harsh criticism of Israel views and she thinks has ties to the PLO.
The Los Angeles Times described Khalidi as having spoken on the PLO's behalf in the 1970s and FOXNews called him "a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization when it was a US-designated terror group."
Khalidi has denied working for the PLO, and Palestinian sources told The Jerusalem Post the characterization is incorrect.
Khalidi taught at the University of Chicago until 2003. Obama and his wife, Michelle, often socialized with Khalidi and his wife, Mona, and the Khalidis hosted a political fundraiser for Obama in 2000.
The Woods Fund charity gave money to the Arab-American Action Network, run
by Mona Khalidi, while Obama served on the charity's board. The video the Times
story quotes records Obama saying that Khalidi provided him "consistent reminders to me of my own blind spots and my own biases. . . . It's for that reason that I'm hoping that, for many years to come, we continue that conversation - a conversation that is necessary not just around Mona and Rashid's dinner table [but around] this entire world."
Asked by a member of the Jewish community about the relationship during a campaign stop in Florida, Obama responded, "To pluck out one person who I know and who I've had a conversation with who has very different views than 900 of my friends and then to suggest that somehow that shows that maybe I'm not sufficiently pro-Israel, I think, is a very problematic stand to take .... We gotta be careful about guilt by association."
Today, the Obama campaign put out a statement charging, "This is just another recycled, manufactured controversy from the McCain campaign to distract voters' attention from John McCain's lock-step support for George Bush's economic policies."> Khalidi turned down a request for comment from the Post. But he referred the newspaper to a story in Wednesday's Huffington Post that McCain headed the International Republican Institute when it gave grants to an organization co-chaired by Khalidi.
McCain spokesman Michael Goldfarb confirmed the veracity of the report, but said that it was beside the point.
He said that McCain had never met Khalidi and that the issue was the entirety of the pro-Palestinian event Obama attended rather than just Khalidi himself. He said the campaign wanted to see the tape to know the full extent of the anti-Israel statements and how Obama reacted to them.
The LA Times story quotes one woman who read a poem calling Israel's treatment of the Palestinians terrorism and condemning US support of Israel. If Palestinians cannot secure their own land, she said, "then you will never see a day of peace."
Another speaker likened "Zionist settlers on the West Bank" to Osama bin Laden, saying both had been "blinded by ideology."
"I don't believe that John McCain would attend an event like this," Goldfarb said.
Khalidi's organization, the Center for Palestine Research and Studies, conducted regular public opinion surveys in the West Bank and Gaza with financial support from various foundations and from the International Republican Institute, an organization that promoting democracy around the world. McCain was the IRI chairman when it gave $448,873 to the research group in 1998, according to IRI's tax return.
Under McCain's leadership, the IRI gave at least $838,494 to Khalidi's group in 1988 and 1999, according to the IRI's tax returns.
Allison Hoffman and AP contributed to this report.