Now running for office: an army of Iraq veterans

All but one of these 50 or so House hopefuls are in the Democratic Party.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

They call themselves the Band of Brothers, about 50 men - and a few women - all Democrats, all opposed to the Bush administration's handling of Iraq, and all military veterans.

One more thing: They're all running for Congress this year.

Not since 1946 have so many vets from one party come together in a political campaign, they claim. Their wildest dream is to give the Democratic Party the extra edge it needs - by boosting its weak image on defense and patriotism - to end Republican control of the House.

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They also know it's a long shot: Many are running against incumbents in safe Republican districts. Many also face competitive primaries against Democratic opponents with more political experience and access to money.

Among the Democratic vet candidates, 10 have served in either Afghanistan or the current Iraq war, or both. Only one - Maj. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, who is competing for the seat of retiring Republican Henry Hyde - was recruited by the national Democratic Party. Political handicappers give her the best shot at making it to Washington of all the Democratic vets running. Handicappers also mention Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania - an Iraq vet trying to unseat a first-term Republican, Mike Fitzpatrick, in a Democratic-leaning district - as having potential, though fundraising has been slow.

The only other Democratic Iraq war vet with a national political profile, Paul Hackett of Ohio, dropped out of his US Senate race Feb. 14 under pressure from party leaders. They wanted to avoid a costly primary and instead steered Mr. Hackett back to a second try at the House seat he almost won last year. His surprise near-victory in a special election for a presumed safe Republican seat earned him national notice - and may have inspired other Democratic war vets to jump into politics.

Mike Lyon, who launched the Band of Brothers political action committee in December, has found the going tough. He's raised only $40,000 so far.

"If resources continue to flow the same way, not many [will win] - I'm being frank," says Mr. Lyon, who is based in Richmond, Va. "But if we can go out and build awareness about their campaigns and provide resources to level the playing field for the November general [election], then I think a lot of these guys will be competitive. We're still getting the lay of the land."

Analysts agree that the novice candidates have their work cut out for them. They have to develop a full congressional agenda, campaigning ability, and networking skills that show they're ready for prime time. Being a Johnny-one-note against the war isn't enough, say political observers.

"They're running for Congress, not commander in chief," says Amy Walter, a specialist in House races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "Obviously, Iraq's an important issue, but at the same time, they need be able to talk about healthcare, the economy, gas prices."

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which recruits and helps candidates the party believes can win, has not made a special effort to recruit Iraq war vets, says spokeswoman Sarah Feinberg. "What we have done is to recruit the best possible candidate in every district," she says.

But as the election year unfolds - including Republican-dominated scandals and low presidential popularity - analysts don't rule out the potential for a national wave that could make some usually safe seats competitive. GOP control of the House remains slim, with 230 Republicans, 202 Democrats, 1 independent, and two vacancies.

"The Democrats' best chance of winning a majority is to expand the playing field beyond the three dozen or so [seats] that have been in play in recent years," says Rhodes Cook, an independent political analyst. Candidates with the Iraq credential could end up being "a twofer for the Democrats. Not only do they have the goodwill of the recent Iraq war vet, but [they] also help offset a party weakness, which is being kind of light on defense."

The Republicans have one Iraq war vet running for Congress, Van Taylor of Texas, who is trying to knock off Rep. Chet Edwards (D). Carl Forti, spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee, says 38 Republicans with military experience are running for Congress. When asked if any of the Democratic vets pose a threat to any Republicans, his answer is simple: "Zero."

Still, "being a vet is a good résumé item to have," says Mr. Forti. "It brings a certain level of approval."

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