The Last Hurdle

In Washington, the only question on anyone's mind is: WWJD -- What Will John Do? Everyone has a theory about whom John Kerry will pick (or should pick) as his running mate, and journalists are scrambling for any angle on the story that they can find.

Last Friday, The Washington Post ran one of the most interesting accounts of where Kerry's thinking may or may not be. While the article was filled with rampant speculation by a panoply of unnamed sources, one observation stuck out. According to the Post: "Friends say Kerry believes he has passed a national security threshold with voters that has freed him to tap a vice presidential candidate who complements him in other ways."

If these "friends" of Kerry were really his friends, they would inform him that, sadly, this is not the case. In fact, the only thing keeping George W. Bush in this race is that John Kerry has not yet met this "national security threshold" with the electorate. Voters still give the President a commanding lead on the questions of who can best protect the nation from terrorists and who is a stronger, more patriotic leader. Fortunately for Kerry, these sentiments say more about the Democratic party -- and voters' lingering doubts about Democrats and defense -- than they do about the candidate. Kerry has enough time to close this national security gap -- and must close it if he hopes to beat Bush this fall.

Despite one question on a recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that showed Kerry with a one-point lead over Bush on the question of "whom do you trust to do a better job of handling the U.S. campaign against terrorism," data within that same poll and in others show that the security gap stubbornly persists.

For instance, the Post poll also reported that, by a margin of 54 percent to 40 percent, voters think that the statement "he will make the country safer and more secure" applies more to Bush than Kerry. This data is consistent with a survey of 1,515 likely voters commissioned by the New Democrat Network (NDN) at the end of May that showed that 53 percent of likely voters say that Bush would do a better job "protecting America from terrorist attack," and only 35 percent say that Kerry would. This 18-point advantage is Bush's largest on any issue area in this poll. In addition, it's more than double his lead on "handling the situation in Iraq," which has dwindled to seven percentage points in the NDN poll and is increasingly becoming a plus for Kerry.

Among swing voters, the NDN poll found, the security gap is even larger: Bush leads 59 percent to 27 percent on terrorism and 49 percent to 36 percent on Iraq. Indeed, even among female swing voters -- voters traditionally not as concerned with this issue -- security is keeping them from becoming a solid Democratic vote.

The national security gap also manifests itself in the perceptions voters have of Kerry and Bush as leaders. A greater number of likely voters see Bush as being strong (56 to 31), being a leader (51 to 37), and being patriotic (48 to 31) than describe Kerry in these ways. To put this in perspective, this leadership gap is comparable to the one between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980. According to the National Election Studies, 63 percent said that Carter was not a strong leader in 1980, while 59 percent said that Reagan was.

The good news is that in 1980, voters knew Carter, and in 2004, voters don't yet know Kerry. With his two decades of service on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his tour of duty in Vietnam, Kerry is a candidate who can earn voters' trust on national security and close the security gap with Bush. Here's how.

First, the act of picking a running-mate, in and of itself, will make Kerry look presidential. This is the first public decision that Kerry will make, and it's an executive decision that will show the public what kind of leader he will be. Who he picks is important; if he picks someone who can be a credible commander-in-chief, it will reflect well on Kerry. But more important is simply having a running-mate -- whoever it may be. Picking a number two makes someone a number one, and by extension, the man in charge. When Al Gore picked Joe Lieberman, it immediately thrust him out of Bill Clinton's shadow and into the starring role, giving him the biggest boost of the 2000 campaign. Just as Batman needs Robin, a presidential candidate needs a number two.

Second, Kerry needs to get viscerally and visibly angry about terrorism. Whether it's a bombing in a foreign capital, the beheading of an American contractor, or a suicide attack in Baghdad or Jerusalem, Kerry's reaction must not be one of diplomatic disappointment, but of plain-spoken anger. The American people need to hear in his voice and see in his body language that if given the opportunity, Kerry would not hesitate to serve Osama bin Laden's head on a platter. Bush has mastered the art of this rhetorical reassurance even as he has pursued policies that have made America less safe. Kerry has the chance to offer voters both hot rhetoric and the clearheaded policy prescriptions to back it up.

Third, bring back "Bring It On." During the nominating campaign this past winter, Kerry would say: "If George W. Bush wants to make national security the central issue in this campaign, I have three words for him I know he understands: 'Bring it on.'" At campaign events around the country, audiences would jump to their feet. They not only were cheering a candidate who would stick it Bush, but also responding to a candidate who was showing Bush-like swagger. "Bring It On" made Kerry look tough; it made him into a fighter, and more than that, into a leader who would not back down from a fight. It's time for Kerry to bring back, if not that exact phrase, then a catchy rallying cry that will both motivate the faithful and inspire confidence in his leadership in the minds of swing voters.

Right now, Kerry has the opportunity through his vice-presidential selection and in the coming weeks of campaigning to define himself as a strong leader who will keep the nation safe and secure. When he does, Kerry truly will have passed the national security threshold and put himself steps away from the White House.

Kenneth S. Baer, a former senior speechwriter for Vice President Al Gore, runs Baer Communications, a Democratic consulting firm.