US politics: Reporting for election duty

The Democrats are recruiting Iraq veterans as candidates in an attempt to strengthen their opposition to the war in the Congressional elections in November. Andrew Buncombe reports
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They are the perfect candidates. Having already served their country in uniform they are now being recruited to serve again in the halls of Congress.

In numbers unseen for more than 50 years, military veterans are being recruited to run as candidates in this autumn's Congressional elections. The majority have been recruited by the Democrats and, perhaps ironically, many of these veterans have been persuaded to run because of the continuing chaos and violence they see in Iraq.

"The Bush administration continues to say we have to stay the course until we achieve victory," said Andrew Duck, a former military intelligence officer and now at Pentagon adviser who is running for Maryland's 6th Congressional District. "But we have seen the course and it's not going to lead to victory. That is the inspiration for most of the vets."

From the perspective of the Democrats, recruiting military veterans makes perfect sense. Even though polls suggest only one in three of the American public approves of President George Bush's handling of the war in Iraq, Democrats are still considered vulnerable on the issue of national security.

Strengthening their political ranks with candidates who have military experience should enable them to bolster their credibility in an area that will be a key issue in November.

Recruitment of these soldiers-turned-politicians allows the Democrats to continue to attack the Republicans over Iraq from a position of strength. It is much harder - though not impossible - for Republicans to accuse their critics of being soft on national security or unpatriotic if that person has recently been wearing a military uniform. America has long had a tradition of its soldiers moving into politics. From its first president George Washington through to John F Kennedy and George Bush Snr, there have been numerous examples of serving soldiers making the switch. Indeed, there have been five generals - George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant, James Garfield and Dwight Eisenhower - who went on to be presidents.

The two chambers of Congress have also traditionally been a stronghold for veterans. In the 95th Congress of 1977 and 1978, a full 77 per cent of senators and representatives had some sort of military service. That figure now stands at just 26 per cent.

But this November it is anticipated that about 100 veterans from conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Vietnam and the Balkans will contest seats for either the House or the Senate. About 10 of these candidates served in either Afghanistan or the war in Iraq.

"It's hard to recruit people to run for Congress," said Professor Burdett Loomis of the University of Kansas, who writes a bi-annual guide to Congress. "It's no fun. It costs lots of money and you're away from your family.

"These are people who feel service is a good thing. When you have these folks run, it gives some added flavour to the issue of the war when the Bush administration wants people to think about it in black and white. They are coming back and saying, 'It's tough over there; I was on the ground'. They provide so much more depth."

Michael Lyon, director of the Band of Brothers, a group organised to promote and raise funds for more than 50 military veterans who are running as Democrats, said veterans had also proved to voters their willingness to serve. "You've passed one test when you take the oath and serve your country honourably," he said. "How this translates into politics you can decide for yourself."

No one better encapsulates the willingness to serve and the idea of sacrifice better than Tammy Duckworth, who is running as a Democrat in Illinois' 6th Congressional district where she is up against a 16-term Republican, Henry Hyde. Ms Duckworth, a major in the Illinois Army National Guard, lost both legs when the Black Hawk helicopter she was piloting was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004.

Ms Duckworth said it was rare for her to bring up her experiences and said that her military experience was only part of her appeal to voters. "It gives you a platform, but that's all it does. If there isn't substance, you'd fall off pretty quickly," she told The Christian Science Monitor.

Democrats believe these veterans will help them in their efforts to win control of one of the two houses of Congress, but recent history shows that military experience has not always been a definite vote winner. In 2004, the campaign for the Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry strongly played up his military experience. But that was not enough to stop him having his national security credentials questioned and being " swift-boated" by Republicans who accused him of lying about his experiences in Vietnam.

In 2002, Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who lost three limbs, failed to keep his Senate seat in Georgia after Republicans accused him of being soft on national security. Even the Republican senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran who will probably run for the presidency in 2008, lost out in his 2000 when he was accused of selling out other veterans.

What may be different this time is the issue of Iraq, which continues to divide the American public. "Iraq has become extremely controversial," said Larry Sabato, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. "It will be one of the major issues in this election. It's highly unusual to have veterans of a ongoing war [participating] That did not happen in Vietnam."

And yet it is not just the Democrats who have recruited military veterans. Van Taylor served with the US Marines in Iraq and is now campaigning for Texas's 17th Congressional District as a Republican. He also believes that the war in Iraq and the wider, so-called war on terror will be key issues.

"The war on terror is going to be with us for a long time," he said. "It can't help to send people to Washington who have experience in [it]," he said. "We need to finish the job in Iraq; you can't cut and run. That would give al-Qa'ida a launching-pad to commit attacks. There is always room for improvement but I share President Bush's commitment to win the war on terror."

Four veteran candidates

Patrick Murphy

A former military lawyer who served in Iraq with the 82nd Airborne, Mr Murphy is running as a Democrat for Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District. Analysts say the 8th is considered a swing district and Mr Murphy has a good chance of ousting the Republican, Michael Fitzpatrick.

Paul Hackett

Mr Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, was contesting the Senate battle in Ohio until he was "persuaded" not to run by national Democratic leaders who believe another Democrat may have a better chance of winning the seat. Last year, Mr Hackett, an outspoken war critic, almost won an election in Ohio's heavily Republican 2nd Congressional district.

James Webb

Mr Webb, a Vietnam veteran, was secretary of the navy in the Reagan administration. He is to challenge Republican George Allen for one of the Senate seats in Virginia. Mr Allen is testing the waters for a 2008 presidential run and Republicans fear Mr Webb could eat into his base of conservative voters with links to the military.

Eric Massa

In New York's 29th Congressional district, Mr Massa, a Navy veteran who once served as an aide to General Wesley Clark, is staging a long-shot challenge to Republican John "Randy" Kuhl in a Republican-leaning district. "There has been a fundamental shift in the paradigm of politics," he said. "I don't think Republicans even realise this."