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With 9 Weeks To Go, Trump, Clinton Campaign Across Battleground States

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With Election Day just about two months off, the race for president is focusing now on which candidate would be the best commander in chief. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are participating in a forum tonight hosted by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. They'll appear separately. Joining us now with more is NPR's Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Leading up to tonight, how has the foreign policy and national security debate played out so far?

LIASSON: Well, in preparation for this event tonight, both candidates have been given giving foreign policy speeches. And today Donald Trump laid out his 10-point military policy. You could definitely call this a pivot. He had a fact sheet. He sounded a lot more like a generic Republican - lots of numbers. He wants a bigger Army, more Marine battalions, Navy ships, fighter jets. His speech today could also be seen as an attempt to win back some of those Republican foreign policy hawks who have abandoned him publicly, many of whom have gone so far as to endorse Hillary Clinton.

And yesterday Trump sat down with retired General Michael Flynn, who was his top military surrogate. He gave a pre-scripted Q&A designed to make him look more presidential, more like a commander in chief. And he was asked about cyber security.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: You know, cyber is becoming so big today. It's becoming something that a number of years ago - a short number of years ago wasn't even a word. And now the cyber is so big. And you know, you look at what they're doing with the Internet, how they're taking, recruiting people through the Internet.

And part of it is the psychology because so many people think they're winning. And you know, there's a whole big thing, even today's psychology where CNN came out with a big poll. Their big poll came out today that Trump is winning. It's good psychology.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

TRUMP: It's good psychology.

LIASSON: So it's still a little bit of stream of consciousness. But when he gave that speech today, he was on script. He read off the teleprompter. He's getting better at doing that. He said when he gets into office, he's going to ask the generals for a plan to defeat ISIS within 30 days - so much for him saying, I know more about ISIS than the generals.

SHAPIRO: That seems to echo something we heard from Hillary Clinton yesterday at a rally in Tampa. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HILLARY CLINTON: He says he has a secret plan to defeat ISIS, but the secret is he has no plan.

LIASSON: Yes, and in addition to saying that he has no plan, Hillary Clinton also dismissed Trump's announcement that he has 88 endorsements from military officers. She rolled out 95 military endorsements today. She says his is a drop in the bucket compared to the 500 military officers that came out for Romney.

SHAPIRO: Trump is now touting his plan for the military, as you say. The heart of his argument has always been that he's just tougher than Clinton. So do you think this is ultimately about who has the better plan or about who is tougher?

LIASSON: I think running for commander in chief is always a character test. It's not really about policy. That's why Trump called Clinton reckless today. He said she was trigger happy and very unstable. That's why when he talks about strength, she attacks him on temperament. She says someone who can be baited with a tweet shouldn't have the nuclear codes. And her super PAC has a new ad out today attacking him with his own words, playing statements where he says he loves war and nuclear weapons.

So this is a big debate about character. Up until now at least, it's been about Donald Trump's character, and a lot of Democrats worry that the bar is simply lower for him than her. We can have a discussion at another time about whether that's gendered, but in a change election where voters are disgusted with the status quo, the electorate just needs to know that the change candidate - in this case Donald Trump - is acceptable and plausible. And that's why it helps him when he lays out any plan at all. And as much as Democrats complain about a double standard, there is just a higher bar for her, as there always is for any incumbent trying to get a third term in office.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson, thank you.

LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.