The Democratic presidential race is all about the direction of the party, the moral course of America, the values our children will inherit and -- most important -- which candidate has worked most closely with his good friend John McCain.

Never mind that McCain isn't running, that he's supporting President Bush and that he's a Republican. Democratic candidates are dropping his name relentlessly in debates, interviews, speeches and press releases to the point where the 2004 nomination fight is taking on a "McCain Eye for the Democratic Guy" flavor. Rarely does a week pass without John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, John Edwards or Dick Gephardt asserting his fondness for, fealty to or some kind of like-mindedness with the blunt-spoken senator from Arizona.

"They seem to forget that I lost," McCain says. Indeed he did, in a bitter nomination battle with then-governor Bush. Still, McCain's insurgent race in the 2000 Republican primaries made him an icon of political independence and a trophy ally -- at least in the minds of some Democrats.

Sen. Kerry's audiences learn that he and McCain have led the fight against global warming, that he stood up with John McCain to learn the fate of POW-MIAs in Vietnam, that he joined with John McCain in an effort to raise fuel efficiency standards and that he co-sponsored legislation with McCain for a Corporate Subsidy Reform Commission.

Sen. Lieberman recently said that, if elected, he would ask his dear friend John McCain to be secretary of defense. This is the same Lieberman who -- according to his campaign Web site -- has been "teaming up with John McCain" to combat global warming and "joined with Senator John McCain" to enhance Native American mental health programs.

Rep. Gephardt, according to a speech published on his campaign Web site, "led the fight along with Senator John McCain" for campaign finance reform, and Sen. Edwards, according to his Web site, stood "shoulder-to-shoulder" with McCain to get a patients' bill of rights through the Senate.

Do these people want to be president or do they want to be John McCain's best friend?

"I have a picture of myself with John McCain," declares long-shot candidate Dennis Kucinich in an interview. He is boasting with tongue in cheek. Because in fact, the Ohio congressman has not stood with or led the fight with or teamed with or worked closely with McCain on much of anything.

Still, Kucinich says he considers John McCain to be a "friend," though not, for the record, a "close friend," "great friend" or "dear friend."

This McCain-worshiping phenomenon is not lost on the hero himself. In a speech to the Washington Press Club Foundation dinner earlier this year, McCain jokingly accused certain candidates of "identity theft."

"I now know why Joe Lieberman, John Edwards and John Kerry are always so anxious to co-sponsor legislation with me," McCain said. "It seems they not only want to work with me, they actually wanted to be me! I feel so violated."

Given the excitement he generated in 2000, it's clear why McCain makes such an attractive target for identity theft. His candor, bipartisanship and independence appeal to non-aligned voters, which could prove useful in states where Republicans and independents can vote for candidates from the other party in "open" presidential primaries.

But the degree to which Democrats are straining to assert their kinship with McCain is striking. "It's something we've all noticed and, frankly, it's a bit silly," says John Weaver, who helped orchestrate McCain's 2000 campaign.

Weaver, who recently switched to the Democratic Party and is unaffiliated in the current race, says political loyalties tend not to shift by way of public alliances. "Even if McCain were to make an outright endorsement of someone, the effect would be minimal," Weaver says.

McCain says he is flattered by all the Democratic praise. "These are good friends," McCain says, referring to Kerry, Lieberman, Gephardt and Edwards. McCain barely knows Howard Dean and has criticized him, particularly on foreign policy. (Nonetheless, Dean's campaign features a newspaper story, "The McCain of Vermont," on its Web site, just as Lieberman's has one titled "The Democrats' John McCain," and Kerry's has one headlined "McCain Gives Nod to Kerry Campaign.")

Asked whom he likes best among the Democratic candidates, McCain doesn't play.

"I can't do that," he says sheepishly. "They're all my friends."

Yes, they've mentioned that.

McCain with Sen. Joe Lieberman, one of his many good friends from the other side of the aisle.