CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The Truman National Security Project is using the Democratic National Convention as an opportunity to school progressive leaders and operatives on messaging foreign policy.

A training titled “Winning the Security Debate” was one of several events the group held this week. The training dispensed advice on selling progressive positions on hot-button defense issues to swing voters.

“We want to train progressives on how to talk about security issues that we care about,” says Stephanie Dreyer, media relations director for the Truman Project. “So this was sort of ideal because you have so many people from all over the country that share many of our values and that maybe struggle to talk about their issues to people other than their base.”

When it comes to defense and national security, conservatives are still winning the messaging war, Dreyer says, but progressives are steadily gaining ground—President Obama polling about even or ahead of Romney on the two  issues.

According to Mike Moschella, Truman’s national political director, the trouble for Democrats when it comes to communicating their stance on national security is a lack of understanding that the issue is an emotional one for many voters, often rooted in fear.

The core of Wednesday’s training session was about conveying personality and values to voters, instead of talking at them about policy. When a voter lacks the experience to evaluate a candidate’s foreign policy position, they tend to evaluate their personality instead, contends Moschella. Posture, tone of voice, and empathetic words and stories become critical to voter persuasion—before taking a position.

“We call this earning the right to talk about policy,” he says.

Night one of the Democratic convention was a perfect example of that strategy in action.

“Up until Michelle Obama’s speech, every single speech was talking to the base, getting us fired up, talking about why it’s great to be a Democrat and why you should vote for Obama,” Dreyer says. “Then you had Michelle get up there, and she really used the value-based narrative—talking about what it was like to be a mom and to grow up in a family that struggled.”

  

When both sides message national security with personal appeals, Moschella thinks the candidate with the most character wins out.

“That’s exactly why we’re talking about this persuasive narrative and making sure we’re not just playing on people’s fears,” Dreyer says. “You’re taking those fears and you’re telling [voters] I have them too.”