Team McCain portrays the Arizona senator as a fighter who is not afraid to stand up to bullies and state sponsors of terrorism, such as Iran, and who knows firsthand the tragic consequences of war. The Obama campaign paints McCain, however, as a warmonger whose overly militaristic approach to counter-terrorism will backfire and create many more enemies than America already has.
Obama sees himself as a tough but more sophisticated peacemaker who will opt for a more cautious, diplomatic and inclusive approach to the counter-terrorism effort. The McCain camp says the Illinois senator is naive, lacks the experience and toughness to stand up to terrorism and its sponsors, and that his proposal to fight Al Qaeda through expanded law enforcement is outmoded and ineffective.
"It is certainly a matter of personality of character and world view" that separates the two, Clarke says.
Both camps said that they would offer more details of their national security plans in the coming weeks. But several counter-terrorism experts say they have grown increasingly frustrated by the tough rhetoric but lack of substantive details.
They acknowledge that the issue is not at the top of the agenda as it was in 2004, because of the economic downturn and the distance from the Sept. 11 attacks.
But they argue that the counter-terrorism effort will test the leadership abilities of the next president perhaps more than any other issue, and that potential missteps in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous other hot spots could be catastrophic.
"I haven't seen or heard much nuance or cognizance of the complexity of the issues from either candidate," said Frank Cilluffo, a former Bush administration counter-terrorism official who directs George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington.
"How do we realistically address Pakistan and the safe-haven issue? How would you recalibrate our counter-terrorism strategies and policies? To achieve what specific aims? What are the criteria for success?" Cilluffo asks. "How will you communicate your priorities to the world to drive constructive change? How would you differentiate your policies from the current administration?"
About this series
Voter anxiety over the weakening economy and other problems is a central feature of the 2008 presidential election. This series will examine how the candidates are responding to the discontent and how they would approach the country's biggest challenges.