11/16/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Trick or Treat: National Security as the October Surprise

In the fall of 2004, a video hit the airwaves that brought back America's fear of terrorism and helped seal John Kerry's fate. No, not the Oct. 29th video released by Osama bin Laden. That hurt Kerry, but the thing that probably put George W. Bush back in the White House was an ad by Progress for America," a 527 group, that was called Ashley"s Story.

In the spot, 16 year-old Ashley Faulkner, who's mother died on 9/11 in the Twin Towers, tells the camera: "He's the most powerful man in the world and all he wants to do is make sure I'm safe, that I'm OK."

It was moving and it was potent. The ad was funded in part by the Home Depot founder to the tune of $17 million - John Kerry could hear the pounding of these do-it-yourselfer campaign titans hammering the last nails into his campaign's coffin. The ad ran nearly 30,000 times in battleground states, starting on Oct. 19.

"Ashley's Story" reminded voters what they liked about President Bush's response to 9/11, ten days before the bin Laden reminded them what they feared. Effectively, it served as a gateway to the bin Laden video--priming voters to see Bush as their protector.

While this election is vastly different than 2004, with the economic crisis dominating the news and the shock of 9/11 having receded, McCain and his allies will try to use national security to catch up. As Arianna noted in her post Tuesday, John McCain's only bright spot at the moment is his continued lead on national security and terrorism.

This is not a new phenomenon. The ten-point lead in the Newsweek poll reflects the findings of many others. Third Way's extensive public opinion research this summer showed Democrats losing on national security by 14 points and on terrorism by 15. Democracy Corps recent poll also shows Obama losing national security by 13 points. It is clear that despite the fiasco in Iraq, the failures in Afghanistan and the multiple other Bush screw-ups around the globe, the national security credibility gap, which has persisted for almost forty years, continues to plague Democrats.

With these numbers in mind, we've seen the Republicans return to the old party playbook--trying to make Democrats appear weak and unable to defend the country. It has worked many times before: they labeled Dukakis as risky and Kerry as indecisive on national security and undermined both as credible leaders that would protect the country. Now, they are trying to do it to Obama, with ads that suggest he is "too dishonorable, dangerous and risky" to be President. These supplement Sarah Palin saying that Obama "pals around with terrorists," Cindy McCain getting "chills" after Obama's vote on an Iraq supplemental, and surrogates using his middle name as a slur.

On its own, it doesn't look like this will be enough to swing this election to McCain. However, should another October surprise like the bin Laden tape emerge, these efforts could be the ground work that knocks Obama off the path to victory in the same way that "Ashley's Story" did in 2004.

The focus of the last few weeks will remain on the economy. Still, the Obama campaign must address national security squarely if they are to neutralize a potential October surprise.

While Arianna is right to argue that Obama should highlight McCain's shortcomings on national security, the critique has to be more than laundry list of his failings--it requires a frame that quickly allows people to see the trend behind these failures but that also speaks to the nature of the man. On the flip side of that, Senator Obama needs to advocate a set of policies that highlight his ability to lead and his desire to protect the nation.

As Third Way laid out this summer, Obama needs to frame John McCain as "reckless and out of touch" and advocate a set of policies that are "tough and smart." In this frame, the laundry list of mistakes takes on a more significant meaning.

McCain's policy to not negotiate with enemies is out of touch with the advice of U.S. military commanders; his refusal to draw down troops in Iraq and deploy forces to Afghanistan is reckless; his inability to realize that Spain is a NATO ally and friend of the United States is out of touch; his choice of a Vice Presidential candidate whose only foreign policy bona fides is a hazy view of Russia is reckless.

From Afghanistan, to Iraq, from military readiness to bad remakes of Beach Boys' songs, John McCain is reckless and out of touch with America's national security interests.

In contrast, Barack Obama has offered policies that are both tough and smart. His proposal to strike terrorist targets in the Pakistan tribal regions: tough; securing all loose nuclear material in Russia in four years to keep it out of the hands of terrorists: smart; sending troops from Iraq to secure Afghanistan and hunt down bin Laden: tough; a timeline to turn over control of Iraq to the Iraqis: smart; returning military deployments to a normal tempo and increasing benefits to recruit more troops: smart.

Because these frames reinforce perceived qualities about the two candidates, they are likely to be accepted by voters. McCain's 'fundamentals of the economy are strong' quote was clearly out of touch and his response to the economic crisis is seen by voters as reckless. Obama, however, came across as a steady hand who understood the problem (smart) and wants regulation to prevent it from occurring again (tough).

If the campaign can get voters to transpose their concerns about McCain's leadership on the economy to his ability to lead on national security, and reinforce that Obama is a leader ready to confront and solve America's problems, then Obama will be well positioned should there be an October surprise. However if a surprise occurs and Obama is caught on the back foot, we could see McCain get the second wind he has been desperately trying to find for the past few weeks. It may be the only way McCain can claw his way back into an election that Obama seems to have done everything else to sew up.