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Democrats seek edge on defense

By Staff writer / August 27, 2008

Speech Wednesday: Joseph Biden will make the Democrats’ national-security case.

Mary Knox Merrill/staff


From the time the Iron Curtain fell across Eastern Europe, Republicans have pretty much had a lock on the national security issue.

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But the drawn-out Iraq war has eroded that credibility. For the first time in at least a decade, polls show that Americans trust the Democratic Party more than the GOP on the crucial issue of America's defense.

On Wednesday night, the Democrats will try to turn those perceptions into votes when they present their vision for a tough, new foreign policy that transcends partisan labels, according to the Democratic National Committee. The case will be made by vice presidential pick Joseph Biden.

Still, if history is any guide, Senator Biden will have a challenge cut out for him. Four years ago, decorated veteran John Kerry tried to shore up his party's credibility on national security when he "reported for duty" and stressed national security during his convention speech. He ended up actually dropping by one percentage point in the polls.

In 2008, the GOP's presumed nominee, John McCain, is a war hero and former POW. He outpolls Barack Obama on the national security issue by four or five percentage points. Among military veterans, who tend to take strong stands for national security, McCain beats Senator Obama by as much as 20 points.

While the economy has eclipsed national security as voters' No. 1 concern, it still ranks as a top issue this election. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing terrorist threat of a reconstituted Al Qaeda, and the tarnished US reputation abroad are central factors in Americans' unease with the current direction of their country.

But in presidential politics, personalities and voters' "gut feelings" about the candidates often matter more than a party's perceived advantage on any specific issue – even when it comes to the Democrats' current advantage on national security.

"Democrats have a generic advantage on national security largely because of George Bush, and the Republican brand is associated with him," says Scott Rasmussen, president of the polling firm Rasmussen Reports. "But McCain is distinctive enough and has enough credibility on his own that he'll always be seen as the stronger candidate on national security issues."

The selection of Biden clearly shores up the Democratic ticket on foreign-policy and security matters. As a longtime member and now chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he's been a witness to most of the major global conflicts of the past three decades – from Vietnam to 9/11. He's also a respected expert on terrorism, international narcotics trafficking, and crime. But all that national-security credibility may not translate into national-security votes for the Democrats.

"In the office, when governing, [a vice-presidential pick] does matter because now it's more a game of teamwork with the president," says Dan Coen, founder of Vice, which offers information on US running mates. "But on the campaign, the vice president lends almost nothing: Nobody's going to vote for No. 2."