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Juliette Kayyem: GOP-leaning "Security Moms" demographic could be area where Donald Trump improves his standing

She says post-9/11, the group has been key in elections, making it tempting for GOP candidates to woo them by playing to fears

Kayyem: Clinton can gain their vote by acknowledging their fears and taking a more reasoned approach to keeping America safe

Editor’s Note: CNN National Security Analyst Juliette Kayyem is a professor at Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration and founder of Kayyem Solutions, a security consulting firm. She is the host of the “Security Mom” podcast and author of a forthcoming book, “Security Mom: An Unclassified Guide to Protecting Our Homeland and Your Home.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

(CNN) —  

Republican candidate Donald Trump has a woman problem.

Last week, for example: His campaign manager was arrested on assault charges after allegedly grabbing a female reporter; then, Trump infamously told an interviewer that women who have illegal abortions must be punished, quickly retracted the statement and ended up calling in his ex-wife Ivana to try to dig him out of his gender free-for-all. If she still likes him, then why can’t we?

The numbers are less forgiving than a former spouse, it appears, and Tuesday night’s loss in Wisconsin may suggest that Trump’s once insurmountable drive to the nomination is wavering.

If it is, women aren’t helping him make it easier. In the most recent CNN polling, 73% of female voters had an unfavorable view of Donald Trump. And this divide isn’t just about Democrats. Nearly a third of all Republican women say they would be “upset” if Trump won. Ahead of the June nominating convention, he seems to face an unbridgeable gender divide.

But if he gets the nomination, he doesn’t need to win the women’s vote. He only needs to put a dent into the Democratic nominees’ dominance of it.

And the best strategy for doing that is not simply clarifying one’s stance on abortion rights or trotting out ex-wife validators.

The key? Security.

Trump – and for that matter Ted Cruz whose victory speech Tuesday night returned again and again to safety and security – will seek traction with the proverbial “Security Moms.”

These are the women who, nervous and anxious after 9/11 about the well-being of their families and communities, began to vote, predominantly, in favor of candidates who seemed tougher and stronger. And this has tended to favor Republican candidates.

In a recent interview in the New York Post, Kellyanne Conway, a Cruz-supporting Republican pollster credited with identifying the Security Mom demographic for GOP candidates, said that her interviews show that women who do like Trump prioritize concerns about “security, fairness and patriotism.” He is strong, they feel – and he tells you he is strong in case you forget.

After the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino last year, and more recently in Brussels, security has re-emerged as a big concern for voters, especially women. But catering to those fears and concerns – or manipulating them– while a strategy, is also sexist. After all, the notion that women need a protector-as-President promotes a stereotype that these voters are defenseless in the face of the world’s problems.

It may be time, as I argue in my new book, to redefine the whole Security Mom demographic.

Politicians such as Trump and Cruz are taking advantage of the post-9/11 theory that has since animated so much of our political discourse: that government alone can keep us safe. Ironically, this focus on government-as-savior in matters of security is inconsistent with the general small-government approach of most Republicans– inconsistency too often lost in the debates about whether President Barack Obama is keeping us safe.

Indeed, Americans’ focus on what government can do for us – rather than what we can all do for each other to minimize our risks and maximize our protections – is fundamentally flawed. For one thing, while women may feel more concern for the safety and security of their families and communities than men, they are hardly defenseless.

And no country like ours can promise a world of perfect security; on issues from gun violence to ISIS, viruses to hurricanes, government can do much to lower the risks we face, but no President or party can promise that the risks we face will be zero.

Still, it will be essential that critics of Trump and Cruz, especially Democrats in the presidential and down-ballot races, grapple with this and begin to take the Security Moms seriously. It is a demographic that matters, and should there be another terrorist incident in the United States before November – even a small lone-wolf attack with limited impact – security issues will continue to rise and unnerve voters.

Clinton, Sanders and down-ballot Democrats have the capacity to win the Security Moms away from Republicans by embracing them and acknowledging that the Democratic Party’s approach to security – maintaining international alliances, criticizing the scapegoating of Muslim communities and supporting first responders – is successful.

They certainly can’t run from Security Moms’ concerns, nor can they claim that they are just the consequence of heightened emotions and vilification by their Republican counterparts. The anxiety for security is real, and acknowledging it is essential to drawing the security demographic back into the fold. And here, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has an advantage.

She has the potential to embody a new version of the Security Mom.

She’s recently gotten to flipping Trump’s “strong” language to “wrong,” and highlighting her history as a senator and secretary of state to point up her more sophisticated approach to the challenges we face as a nation. At this stage in the campaign, Bernie Sanders’ seeming lack of interest in foreign policy and national security issues may cater to his base but will not help him last through the general.

Only Clinton, as a mother and grandmother, can speak to the emotional fear for the safety of our children that animates so many women voters. By acknowledging the risks we face, but also arguing for a more reasoned and less belligerent approach to our security, she can redefine and recapture a group of women who might otherwise steer to the right.

As any mother (or president) can tell you, hand-wringing and fear-mongering gets you just about nowhere. Security Moms have real concerns about the future their children will inherit: real concerns that deserve real answers.

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