America's moms look for the toughest guy on TV tough guy

On the eve of their first televised debate, Kerry and Bush are level pegging in a Democrat stronghold. Rupert Cornwell discovers suburban unease over national security is tipping the balance
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The Independent US

On a clear day, standing by the memorial in Middletown, not far from where the ferry takes workers from suburban New Jersey across the bay to Manhattan, you can see New York shimmering 20 miles away across the water. If you know it well, you can even spot the gap where the two towers once stood.

The memorial is a five-foot-tall slab of black granite, standing just above the beach, between two American flags fluttering in the gentle breeze. It carries an engraving of the old New York skyline, and a simple inscription: "In Memory of All Those Who Perished on September 11 2001. Never Forget." That day, Middletown lost 36 people in the destruction of the World Trade Centre - more than almost anywhere outside New York City itself - and neither it, nor New Jersey, nor the country has forgotten. So powerful is the memory that even before the first presidential debate, it may have already settled the outcome of the 2004 election.

When John Kerry squares up to George Bush tonight on national security and foreign policy in Miami, 1,500 miles to the south, New Jersey should be on his mind. For what is happening here, if left uncorrected, will surely doom his presidential bid. Suburban and secular, with large numbers of blacks, Hispanics and Jews, New Jersey is supposed to be solid Democrat territory. Bill Clinton carried the state in 1996 by 18 percentage points and Al Gore did almost as well in 2000 against Mr Bush. Middletown, with its commuters, its shopping malls, and quiet sense of community, is a microcosm of Suburban East Coast USA.

These are the people Mr Kerry will have to convince in tonight's all-important debate if he stands any chance of beating the President in five weeks. It is to be followed by a vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and his Democratic challenger, John Edwards, in Cleveland, Ohio, and two other presidential debates in St Louis and Tempe, Arizona.

Just a few weeks ago, Mr Kerry looked set to secure another double-digit win for the Democrats. No more, however. One poll just after the Republican convention showed Mr Bush within hailing distance; another last week put the two candidates dead level. Terror is not the only explanation for this unscripted turn of events. The state's most populous north-eastern region is to all intents and purposes part of the New York television market, and was drenched in coverage of a successful convention. The local Democratic establishment has been thrown into turmoil, first by allegations of corruption in state government, and then by the shock resignation of the Democratic governor James McGreevey after he admitted a homosexual affair. Then there are the general shortcomings of the Kerry campaign.

"The fact is he's a weak candidate, people don't know him here," says a New Jersey political scientist. "The President has bad numbers here, yet Kerry hasn't been able to take advantage. A lot of people say that if Bill Clinton had been the candidate, he'd have been ahead by 10 points by now." Instead, Mr Kerry can do no better than level pegging - even though New Jersey's inhabitants by large margins believe it was wrong to go to war in Iraq, and that Mr Bush is doing a bad job. The paradox is to be explained in a single word. Women.

How times have changed. Mr Clinton thrived among the "soccer moms", suburban women with families, who worried about traditional Democratic issues such as education and health care, and who leant instinctively to the candidate who, as the pollsters put it in their questionnaires, "cares about the problems of people like me". But this year, the political marketing experts have identified a remarkable transformation. The soccer mom has mutated into the "security mom". She still worries about jobs, schools and doctors. But her preference is likely to be for "the candidate who can keep me safer".

For the first time since the Second World war, national security is dominating an election. Poll after poll shows terrorism to be the most important issue, with the economy next and Iraq a distant third. The security mom wants a candidate with empathy, but above all one who can "keep me and my family safe". Not just Middletown, but all New Jersey lives in the shadow of 11 September.

The state lost 700 people that day, and the gaping hole in the distant Manhattan skyline is a constant reminder. The fear is also current; in August, the FBI named a big financial institution in Newark, New Jersey's largest city, on a possible al-Qa'ida hit list. But Middletown and New Jersey also exemplify a trend that may have reshaped the entire presidential contest - George Bush's growing popularity among women.

Republicans always do well among men, but the opposite sex has traditionally been a Democratic constituency. Mr Clinton carried the women's vote by huge margins, and even the less magnetic Al Gore defeated Mr Bush among women by 11 points. But that was four years ago. In New York, the Republicans made 11 September the central theme of their convention. A few days later came the Beslan tragedy in Russia, a reminder that proof that in the global struggle with terrorism, not even young children at the sanctuary of school were safe.

Suddenly, women found Mr Bush's tough talk and macho swagger rather less off-putting. If the Democrats did not immediately realise what was happening, the Republicans did. The Bush/Cheney team dispatched Laura Bush, the most popular campaign speaker on either side, on an election trip to New Jersey.

Sweetly, in her soft Texas lilt, the First Lady pressed exactly the right button: "As we grieve for the families in Russia and we mark the third anniversary of September 11, I believe what's most important is my husband's work to protect our country and to defeat terror around the world." At a stroke Mrs Bush - school teacher, wife and mother - turned herself into a national emblem of the security moms.

David Rebovich, a commentator on New Jersey politics, says: "From gun control to a woman's right to choose the environment, health care and the war on Iraq, Kerry is on the right side of the issues. But New Jersey is a 9/11 state." Belatedly the Democrats have woken up to this new reality, sending Mr Edwards to remind it of where its loyalties ought to lie.

Nonetheless, the state is unlikely to be a battleground this autumn, however close the contest, and however tempting its 15 electoral college votes, the ninth largest presidential contest prize. For one thing, neither side wants to spend on television advertising in the hugely expensive New York and Philadelphia markets to reach New Jersey voters. Even Republicans suspect that come voting day, New Jersey will again deliver for Mr Kerry.

And as for the "security moms", some are less than convinced. "This is a transient phenomenon, there's still a gender gap in US politics," argues Debbie Meyer, director of the Centre for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. She predicts that once again, women will be swayed by the usual pocketbook issues of jobs, schools and health care.

Even more to the point, if Mr Kerry has to fight to hold New Jersey, he hasn't a prayer of winning the White House anyway. The last time the state went Republican was in 1988, when the first George Bush defeated Michael Dukakis, another Democrat from Massachusetts, in a near-landslide - by making a mockery of Mr Dukakis's national security credentials.

Bush the son has a similar strategy, deriding Mr Kerry as a vacillator and a "flipflopper" who cannot be trusted to make the country safe. Dick Cheney has gone further, telling campaign audiences that if Mr Kerry is elected, more terrorist attacks are likely. Democrats cried foul, and the Vice-President issued a partial retraction, but the damage was done. Voters' confidence in Mr Kerry to cope with the terrorist threat took another hit. That is the main reason why he enters the debate trailing Mr Bush by between six and eight points.

To reassure the waverers of Middletown, the Democrat has to turn the national security/Iraq issue on its head tonight. Mr Bush's perverse brilliance has been to present Iraq not merely as part of, but as the "central front" in the "war on terror", and that America is somehow safer with Saddam out of power. By relentlessly staying on message he has pulled it off, and gained a virtual free pass on the post- invasion shambles. Of late Mr Kerry has sharpened hisattacks. But nothing he has said, nor a string of embarrassing CIA leaks (the latest that months before he went to war Mr Bush was warned by his intelligence that invasion would fuel insurgency and the cause of Islamic extremism), has thus far made much difference. In the debate, the challenger must uncouple Iraq from the war on terror - or rather, argue that if Iraq is indeed the central front, then the war is going very badly. Mr Kerry will contend that Mr Bush blew his chance of dealing with Osama bin Laden and al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan.

The debate rules will make the Democrat's task hard. The candidates will not be allowed to question each other directly, and follow-ups are not allowed. But however imperfect the format, the debate is Mr Kerry's best, and probably last, chance of measuring himself directly against the President on the issue that will settle the election - and of convincing the citizens of Middletown, New Jersey, and the United States of America of his cause.