Pilot who lost her legs in Iraq takes on Republicans

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It was a little after 7am and barely above freezing in the McDonald's car park but Sam Reyes needed no warm-up when asked his opinion about the war in Iraq.

"I don't believe in the war," said Mr Reyes, a 63-year-old marine veteran who said he was twice wounded in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart.

"I gave President Bush Afghanistan but I didn't agree with Iraq. I go to the funerals of the soldiers from around here. I speak to the families ... We vote for these people, Republicans and Democrats, but they are not doing their jobs. President Bush is not doing his job."

Like many in the flat and sprawling "Anywhere USA" Chicago suburbs that make up Illinois's 6th Congressional District, Mr Reyes has been quietly impressed by Tammy Duckworth, a former member of the National Guard who lost both legs in Iraq and is now battling to make the transformation from soldier to politician. And in a district that has been solidly Republican for more than 30 years, Ms Duckworth could be poised to achieve a remarkable victory for the Democrats: polls currently tie her with her Republican rival in a race that has become a microcosm of a debate taking place across America.

The news from Iraq is of nothing but carnage. The US death toll stands at about 2,800 while Iraqi casualties may be as high as 655,000. Every day, Americans are confronted by more evidence of the chaos and - for the first time in a generation - a war involving the US has taken centre stage in the national political debate. Concern has grown to the point that Iraq has become one of the key issues in these mid-terms that will determine who controls the House and the Senate.

Ms Duckworth, 38, injured when the helicopter she was piloting was shot down by insurgents in 2004, has been a strident critic of Mr Bush's handling of the war, accusing him of failing to properly plan and of seeking to link it to a broader "war on terror".

In a recent radio debate with her rival Peter Roskam, a smooth and seasoned state legislator, she accused the government of being unaccountable. She said the Secretary of Defence should be required to report every two months on what progress was being made in training Iraqi forces and how US money was being spent. When Mr Roskam tried to counter, Ms Duckworth said: "I know a little something about Iraq - I've been there."

For 32 years, the district for which Ms Duckworth is fighting - largely white, a mixture of middle and working class - was held by the Republican Henry Hyde. The demographic is changing as more Hispanics move into the district, which is also home to Chicago's O'Hare airport - the world's second busiest.

One of those incessant flights was soaring overhead one recent evening as Rose Kelly sat on her stoop and explained why she will vote for Ms Duckworth. The "Duckworth for Congress" sign on her lawn had been put there by her husband, she explained, but since reading the campaign material, Mrs Kelly - that rarest of things in the US, an independent, floating voter - had also decided to support her. Asked for her voting priorities, she said: "Keeping my children safe and knowing [Ms Duckworth] was on the front lines and will be handicapped for the rest of her life, I know she will fight not just for me and my family but for others in this district."

For one neighbour, Diane Berman, Ms Duckworth's experiences in Iraq are even more of a factor. A long-time opponent of the war, Mrs Berman has twice seen Ms Duckworth speak in person. She said she was impressed that she "did not sound like a politician" and that when she talked about Iraq "she has experience". She added: "The war has had a big impact. People are discussing it. People have ... had enough."

Some observers are surprised Ms Duckworth has not made even more of the Iraq issue in the increasingly bitter campaign.

Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, said: "The Democrats have been very critical of the Republicans but they do not have a party line. I think [it was decided] they can emphasise her own personal story without making Iraq a priority issue."