PHILADELPHIA — Democrats opened their convention with an emphasis on inclusion and public service, and little mention of law and order or the rise of the Islamic State — a stark contrast to the Republicans’ focus on homeland security at their convention in Cleveland last week.
Hillary Clinton has made a strategic calculation to present an optimistic view of America and its place in the world as she is formally nominated this week. It’s a bet that voters will reject what her campaign calls the inaccurate fear-mongering of Republican nominee Donald Trump.
But some Democrats worry that the contrast could help Trump make up in rhetoric for a lack of traditional national security credentials.
“My hope is that people will see through this,” said Michèle Flournoy, a former senior Pentagon official under President Obama and a Clinton supporter. “It’s policy by bumper sticker. There will be some people who will find the strength of his rhetoric very appealing.”
None of the prime-time speakers on the Democrats’ opening night, Monday, dwelled on security in the traditional sense — either U.S. military readiness or safety on the streets. On Tuesday, many Republicans jumped to say that the threat from the Islamic State went unmentioned.
Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort sent this Twitter message Tuesday morning, using another name for the Islamic State:
“Clinton Mentions at DNC Last Night: 208. Trump Mentions at DNC Last Night: 96. ISIS Mentions at DNC Last Night: 0 (!!!)”
Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta was pressed Tuesday about the silence from Monday night’s lineup of speakers on a major issue in the minds of voters — terrorism.
“This is not a problem that is going away. It needs an intelligent and resourced and fulsome strategy, but the wrong strategy is to split away our alliances and to divide our country,” Podesta said at a Wall Street Journal luncheon here. “We need everyone in this fight together.”
Several Democrats said the structure of the convention is deliberate, with an initial focus on bringing the divisive primary contest to a respectful close, as well as on Clinton’s biography as an advocate for children and families.
Her national security bona fides and an examination of where the country stands after nearly eight years of the Obama presidency are subjects for later in the week, several Democrats said, although there is an effort to avoid much mention of Clinton’s onetime support for the Iraq War.
Clinton’s attempt to offer a sunnier vision of American leadership comes along with a concerted strategy to make the case that she is more knowledgeable and experienced on national security issues. It will be a major theme of her address in accepting the nomination Thursday as well as a subtext to remarks Wednesday from President Obama. Former president Bill Clinton, her husband, was to include similar points in his speech Tuesday.
“America is grappling with big questions,” Hillary Clinton said Monday in an address in Charlotte to a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. “How do we keep our country safe? How do we make the world safer?”
Clinton has continued to make the case that Trump would be a reckless commander in chief — and she has added to that charge a warning: that Trump is asking to become an autocrat.
“I believe the United States of America is an exceptional nation, with capabilities that no other country comes close to matching. We have the world’s greatest military — don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” she said, a reference to Trump’s claim that Obama has gutted the armed forces.
At the same time, some Clinton backers acknowledge that Trump’s dark portrait of diffuse threats holds resonance for Americans made uneasy by terrorism and mass shootings.
The Republican convention last week focused heavily on safety, particularly the notions that Obama has made the country more vulnerable and diminished its stature, and that Clinton would push the nation further to the brink. Trump came out of the convention essentially tied with Clinton in two national polls, a larger bounce from the nomination than senior Democrats had expected and potential evidence that Trump is connecting with undecided voters on questions of personal and national safety.
Clinton has repeatedly called Trump unfit to lead — impetuous, uninformed and untested. Trump is offering no public indication that he considers national security a weak spot, and instead has broadened his argument that the country is in crisis and that he can fix it, Democrats said.
Trump is making a “classic strongman appeal,” said Philip Gordon, Obama’s former White House Middle East policy coordinator, who also worked in Hillary Clinton’s State Department. “It’s exactly what authoritarian leaders in other countries have done — it’s, ‘Trust me, I know how to do that.’ ”
The generalized threat Trump invokes makes it harder in some ways for Clinton to counter him and could marginalize her credentials as secretary of state, several Democrats said.
Addressing the VFW convention Tuesday, a day after Clinton, Trump mocked the idea that she has the experience and credentials to keep the country safe.
“We know how she takes care of the veterans, just look at her invasion of Libya and her handling of Benghazi — a disaster,” Trump said as the crowd booed Clinton. “Or look at her emails, which put America’s entire national security at risk.”
Suddenly there were scattered shouts of “Lock her up!”
Trump grinned and said: “And to think she was here yesterday. I guess she didn’t do very well.”
Trump is also trying to capitalize on deep concerns about jobs, wages and trade — issues that animated the Democratic primary contest this year.
As the Democratic convention opened Monday, Trump reminded disaffected supporters of Clinton’s primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), of his own opposition to international trade deals that Clinton once supported.
As if to acknowledge the political threat, Clinton and her running mate, Sen. Timothy M. Kaine (Va.), will immediately embark on a three-day bus tour of Pennsylvania and Ohio after the convention.
Both states were hit hard by the Great Recession. Global trade is often blamed for manufacturing and other job losses in the two states, and both are home to large numbers of working-class whites, a demographic among which Trump’s message about a loss of American primacy has found an audience.
“We also have an economy that is larger, more durable and more entrepreneurial than any other on the planet,” Clinton said during her VFW appearance. “And we are guided by values that have long inspired people across the world — a commitment to freedom and equality, justice and diversity — that fundamental American idea that every single person deserves to be treated decently and with respect, no matter who they are.”
Jenna Johnson in Charlotte and Abby D. Phillip in Philadelphia contributed to this report.