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Democrats dismiss criticism over lack of terror talk at convention

Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton appears on a large monitor to thank delegates during the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia , Tuesday, July 26, 2016. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

The relative lack of discussion of ISIS and the threat of terrorism during the first two days of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) stands in stark contrast to the focus on the danger of Islamic terrorism that drove much of the Republican convention last week.

However, Democratic strategists reject Republican allegations that the dearth of terrorism references is evidence that the party is downplaying the threat posed by ISIS.

ISIS and terrorism were not mentioned at all in the first night of the convention in Philadelphia. Several speakers on Tuesday made brief mentions of nominee Hillary Clinton’s ability to defeat ISIS, but Republicans have still been highly critical of the Democratic approach.

“ISIS isn't even mentioned,” GOP nominee Donald Trump said at a press conference Wednesday. “It's not even mentioned during the Democratic convention. And everyone's talking about it. The reason they can't mention it is because they grew it.”

“Clinton Mentions at DNC Last Night: 208. Trump Mentions at DNC Last Night: 96. ISIS Mentions at DNC Last Night: 0 (!!!),” Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort tweeted Tuesday.

"Not one of them named ISIS by name,” vice presidential nominee Mike Pence said at a rally Tuesday. Referring to Trump, he added, “This man will name our enemies without apology and he will defeat them."

Democrats denied that waiting until the second half of the convention to tackle the subject reflects a party that is unable to relate to the public’s fears or that considers protecting the nation from terrorism a low priority.

Attempting to match the rhetoric on terrorism unfurled by Trump and his supporters at the Republican National Convention (RNC) last week would be pointless, said Democratic strategist Scott Ferson.

“Donald Trump chose to play to people’s fears,” Ferson said. “I think the Democrats are right not to do that. We’re not going to out-fearmonger Donald Trump.”

“It’s ridiculous to say because it comes up in the third night of the convention that it’s not a priority,” he added.

During the weekend before the convention, there was an ISIS-inspired suicide bombing attempt in Germany. On Tuesday, apparent ISIS supporters attacked a church in France. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was critical of Democrats for not acknowledging those tragedies on stage with a prayer or a moment of silence.

The theme of the first night of the DNC centered on unity, and the second night was about Clinton’s career and personal history. Speakers have largely stuck to those topics.

Wednesday’s theme is “Working Together,” and speakers include President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine, a retired Navy admiral, a former secretary of defense, and survivors of the terrorist attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando.

Democratic strategist Craig Varoga argued that, while ISIS has rarely been mentioned directly so far, many speakers have attested to Clinton’s leadership and the skills required to fight terrorism.

“There’s been plenty of talk by Democrats about Hillary Clinton’s strength and experience, and the steadiness that she would bring to the job of commander in chief,” he said.

He suggested the criticism from Republicans is driven by a desire to distract from growing questions about Trump’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The Republicans making these charges are desperate to change the topic away from the distinct possibility that Russia and Vladimir Putin have set out to damage Hillary Clinton’s nomination and otherwise disrupt an American election in order to create instability in the western world,” Varoga said.

U.S. intelligence officials have said evidence indicates Russians were involved in the hacking of Democratic National Committee email accounts that led to the dumping of thousands of messages by WikiLeaks last week.

“Instead of making things up, these Republicans should ask themselves why Trump is so hostile to NATO and so friendly to Putin,” Varoga said.

According to Republican strategist Brian Fraley, the lack of attention to public safety and terrorism in the first half of the DNC could be a problem.

“I understand that they want to counter Trump's dystopian doom and gloom with a more aspirational and hopeful message,” Fraley said. “But it's a tactical mistake to not hit upon issues voters care about, and clearly safety is a top issue.”

However, he noted that turning voters’ attention to terrorism could raise uncomfortable questions about Clinton’s tenure as secretary of state.

“The issue also exposes a key weakness for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She's running on the incumbent party ticket, and was directly responsible for Obama's foreign policy disasters of his first term.”

Mary Stuckey, a professor at Georgia State University who studies presidential rhetoric, said it appears the Clinton campaign believed its biggest challenges were winning over Bernie Sanders supporters and improving voters’ perception of the nominee’s likability and trustworthiness. Tackling those issues Monday and Tuesday before taking on national security seems to be a deliberate choice.

“It was clearly part of a calculated strategy, so to the extent that the Clinton people think it’s a risk, they were willing to accept that risk,” Stuckey said.

The contrast with the fear and anger of the RNC in the speeches so far is likely also intentional.

“The deportment was very calming, in keeping with the Democrats’ theme this year that ‘we’re the party of hope, not fear,’” she said.

With the president and vice president taking the stage, Stuckey predicted a shift toward national security Wednesday that will present Clinton as a reliable leader and portray Trump as “either a threat or a buffoon or a threat because he’s a buffoon.”

Obama carries a unique air of authority when discussing the nation’s security challenges.

“That’s a card nobody can play like a president can play,” she said.

Stuckey expects both Obama and Biden will relish the opportunity to tear into Trump. They will likely speak about terrorism differently from Republicans, though.

“I don’t think they’re going to focus on ISIS in the way that Republicans did,” she said. “I think they’re going to put national security in a broader context.”

Ferson said the RNC’s emphasis on terrorism and ISIS made sense, because he believes fear may be the GOP’s most potent weapon in this race.

“I think, given what they need to do to win an election,” he said, “they have to make 50.1 percent of voters cower in their basements in sheer fear. I’m banking on that not happening.”

Democrats must now find a way to counter the RNC message that America is less safe and the public should live in fear of terrorism. They also must give viewers a reason to trust Clinton on an issue where voters have traditionally favored Republicans.

“It always makes sense for Republicans to try to make an election a foreign policy election, and it always makes sense for Democrats to try to make it a domestic policy election,” Stuckey said.

She said Democrats may reference Trump’s behavior at a press conference earlier Wednesday, in which he urged Russia to obtain and release emails that Clinton deleted, in making their case against him. They could also weave together the recent terror attacks on traditional allies in Europe to emphasize the importance of international alliances that Trump threatens to undermine.

Trump has frequently insisted that his plan for defeating ISIS is secret, and Stuckey said voters likely care less about the specifics of either candidate’s policy than they do about believing that the candidates have a policy. Making a convincing argument on that front will be one hurdle that Clinton and her surrogates must clear on the convention floor this week and on the campaign trail in the months ahead.

“To the extent that the Republicans can attack on this question, that is good for them, and to the extent that the Democrats can fend off such an attack, that is good for them,” she said.

Ferson sees little long term risk for Democrats in delaying the discussion of terrorism at the convention as long as they do ultimately convey the message that Clinton is a strong leader.

“It’s hard for Donald Trump to say in October, ‘Remember they didn’t bring it up until the third day at the convention,’” he said.

On the other hand, Fraley suggested that tactic could prove effective against Clinton in the general election.

“Regardless of if it's a weak point for her, completely ignoring the issue on day one was a horrible self-inflicted wound that will be exploited continually in the campaign's final 100 days,” he said.

Shifting gears to address the topic Wednesday and Thursday might not be enough to overcome the impression that Democrats are out of touch with the fears and concerns of the average voter.

“You can't lay out a strategy if you don't acknowledge the problem,” Fraley said. “I expect the DNC and the Clinton campaign will adapt and we'll hear a lot more about fighting ISIS during the convention's final two days.”

“It may not erase the damage done on day one,” he added, “but it will help.”

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