While the president gets briefed in his high-tech Sit Room deep in the West Wing's basement, John Kerry's intel sessions are a much more makeshift affair. Seven hours after the White House offered to brief him, Kerry, who'd been unwilling to bump any campaign events, was finally parked in one place long enough so that a secure phone line could be set up in his bus. After playing softball with firefighters and autoworkers in Taylor, Mich., Kerry boarded his bus next to the field, and, still wearing his TEAM KERRY jersey, heard what lay behind last week's terror warnings. While his aides described the call as simply "informative," the glimpse into the top-secret intel made its political mark all the same. Kerry tiptoed warily around the warning, and kept his distance from Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor, who accused the Bush administration of manipulating the warning to help boost the president's re-election bid. Kerry wasn't always so respectful. Standing beside Dean six months ago, he reacted with scorn to a previous Orange alert. "The president is actually playing for the culture of fear in our country," he said in a televised debate in Iowa.

Whatever his change of tone, Kerry's campaign remains deeply critical of the president's war on terror. His aides say the president has failed to secure the homeland by spending too little on firefighters, port security, or protecting nuclear and chemical plants. Kerry's advisers blame the shortfall in part on the fact that the areas facing the biggest threat--the corridors connecting Boston to Washington, Chicago to Detroit, and Seattle to San Diego--vote Democratic. "If they really looked at where the threats were, they'd be spending money in areas that are not their base," says Rand Beers, Kerry's national-security adviser, who previously served in the Bush White House as its counter-terrorism director.

What would Kerry do differently in the fight against Al Qaeda? He wants to double the number of Special Forces and spies. He also wants to deploy a bigger international force to secure Afghani-stan, not least in Al Qaeda and Taliban territory on the border with Pakistan. He also might scrap the color-coded alert system--aides say it's become ineffective--for a new one that incorporates more specific information about what precautions people should take. Beyond military force, Kerry wants to win the war of ideas in the Arab and Islamic world, with stronger trade and improved educational programs.

While the president talks about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, Kerry wants to spend more money, and sign new international agreements, to secure loose nukes. While the president talks about closing down terrorist finances, Kerry wants to name and shame uncooperative banks and countries--and even shut them out of U.S. markets. And where Bush would create an intelligence director outside the White House and the cabinet, Kerry says he would give the new czar full power to control funding and personnel across the intel community.

He may talk tough, but Kerry still faces his biggest challenge convincing voters he'd be a better commander in the war on terror than Bush. Polls show the president holding a double-digit lead over Kerry on terrorism and homeland security. And the Bush campaign is relentlessly attacking Kerry's Senate record, accusing him of missing intel committee meetings and proposing to cut intel spending a decade ago. For Kerry, that leaves little room for maneuvering. While his aides dodged the media's questions about the move to Code Orange, Kerry criticized Bush for lingering in a Florida classroom on the morning of 9/11. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani shot back by accusing Kerry of being "indecisive" and taking his cues from filmmaker Michael Moore. With or without a secure phone line, Kerry knows he'll need a better connection if he's going to beat the man who runs the Sit Room on the terror front.