Tammy Duckworth is exceptionally upbeat.
"Hi, I'm the Iraq war veteran who's running for Congress," she chirps to passersby on a campaign tour through Elmhurst, launching into a discussion of Pell grants, healthcare, or the Iraq war.
It's a long way from where Ms. Duckworth was just a year ago: in a bed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, unsure whether she'd walk again. In November 2004, she'd been injured when a grenade ripped through the helicopter she was flying in Iraq, ultimately losing both legs and partial movement in her right arm.
Now, Duckworth is a rising Democratic hopeful, the woman whom party leaders hope can take back the district Rep. Henry Hyde (R) is vacating after more than 30 years in office.
Of several Iraq war vets the Democratic Party is backing this year, she has arguably the highest profile, garnering national attention well before she's even competed in the party primary. But her campaign is attracting notice not just because of her veteran status. Rather, it's because the idea that a Democrat like Ms. Duckworth could represent Chicago's outer-ring western suburbs - once unthinkable in this Republican stronghold - has become a very real possibility.
"As city people move out to these suburbs, the days of pure Republicanism are over," says Dick Simpson, a former alderman and a political scientist at the University of Illinois in Chicago. "There is a tidal wave that's changing the politics out there."
Duckworth is a late entry to the race, since she was unable to officially enter until the Army released her from active duty in mid- December. If she's ever to test her mettle against a Republican, she'll have to prevail first over fellow Democrats Christine Cegelis, who won an impressive 44 percent of the vote against Hyde in 2004, and Wheaton College professor Lindy Scott in Illinois' March 21 primary.
But she's already won the endorsement of the AFL-CIO and support from big-name Illinois politicians like Democratic Sens. Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, and Rep. Rahm Emanuel, who heads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And in the few weeks she had in the last quarter of 2005, she raised more than $120,000 - substantially more than either Democratic opponent. She still has far less money than Peter Roskam, the Republican she could face this fall, but the initial windfall bodes well for her future.
Democratic leaders hope that Duckworth's veteran status will help win voters in a district that is still conservative, though increasingly disenchanted with the Republican Party.
"The district itself is ripe for change," says David Axelrod, a Democratic strategist advising Duckworth's campaign. "Tammy represents something that would make the district proud in the sense that she's got a life of service, and no one is going to trivialize her or characterize her in ways that Republicans have sometimes tried to do with others."
Duckworth is the first to acknowledge that her Iraq experience is what won her a spot in the race. But she tries to move the conversation to other issues - particularly education and healthcare - and her experience prior to Iraq, working at Rotary International and studying healthcare issues as a political science doctoral candidate.
"You'll rarely see me bring up Iraq and the war on my own," Duckworth says, although she is quick to criticize the Bush administration's war decisions. Her refrain is that she was injured "18 months after the 'mission was accomplished,' " according to President Bush. Being a war veteran, she says, "gives you a platform, but that's all it does. If there isn't substance, you'd fall off pretty quickly."
Some of her substance, Duckworth says, comes from personal experiences: the $70,000 in student loans she graduated with, or her own experience needing medical care.
"I was lucky to have world-class healthcare at Walter Reed, but I understand that everyone doesn't have that access," she says, sipping a latte during a break from morning campaigning.
Duckworth also hopes that her lack of previous political involvement will allow her to reach across the partisan divide. "People here are so sick of partisanship," she says.
With a style that's down-to-earth, Duckworth is quick with self- deprecating humor and matter-of-fact references to her injuries. The biggest problem with her injured right arm, she tells some friends after a morning rally, is her inability to use chopsticks when eating sushi. "I lose all street cred!" she jokes.
Later, she chats with a voter in a Starbucks about the upsides of being able to choose what size shoe she wanted for her prosthetic legs, which she now walks on with the help of a cane.
But she's eager to turn to more-serious topics, and comes across as smart and articulate while discussing taxes or the reasons she favors benchmarks, rather than a timeline, for withdrawal from Iraq.
Still, her political inexperience has caused some critics to suggest she is being used by the Democratic Party as an Iraq veteran poster girl, and to question why the party has supported Duckworth over her rival, Cegelis, who has more history in the district.
"If you put the two together, Cegelis has better answers to congressional-level questions," says Professor Simpson, who wrote an op-ed last fall criticizing party leaders' decision to back Duckworth.
For her part, Cegelis is counting on her experience in the district to win the primary. Duckworth "is an amazingly brave woman, but in the end I think the campaign will be about local people and local issues," says Cegelis, an IT professional at a software firm. "I've been in this district and campaigned for 2-1/2 years."
Still, Cegelis says the attention Duckworth's entry has brought - from media as distant as The Times of London - is welcome. "It's elevated the race and has given us a great platform so people can be more informed."
That attention has helped Duckworth get some early name recognition. As she campaigns around Elmhurst - one of the few suburbs in her strip mall- and subdivision-heavy district with a downtown - several voters have heard of her.
"My husband's truck flipped over when he was [in Iraq]!" says Rebecca White, a Riverside resident lunching with her father at Buffalo Wild Wings, when Duckworth stops by her table to give her pitch. She listens intently to Duckworth's thoughts on Iraq and declarations of what a strong advocate she'll be for the troops. Later, she admits she'll probably still vote Republican, out of habit. "But I'm going to have to follow up and do some research."
Rebecca's father, Ron Gandy, whose nephew served in Iraq, is more persuaded: "You have to give a lot of credit to someone who went over there."
The district Duckworth will need to win, in DuPage County and a bit of western Cook County, is a mix of affluent outlying suburbs and middle-class towns, home to the Christian Wheaton College and the more blue- collar enclaves around O'Hare Airport.
Always staunchly Republican, a combination of demographic shifts and disenchantment with the GOP among some voters has made it more competitive. Congressman Hyde's neighbor to the north, Phil Crane, was defeated in 2004 by Melissa Bean, in an area with similar political leanings.
"This is now the most competitive area in the state of Illinois," says Paul Green, a political scientist at Chicago's Roosevelt University. "More people are open to voting Democratic because they don't think it's a wasted vote."
Residents say the change is apparent.
"At the Fourth of July parade this year, people were cheering the Democratic float" instead of the more typical laughing or jeering, says Christine Edison, a young copy editor from Glen Ellyn who considers herself a Democrat. Ms. Edison hasn't followed Duckworth's campaign closely, but she says it has potential.
"I see ribbons everywhere around here saying to support the troops. [Duckworth's veteran status] would have a lot of respect," she says. "I think the mood in this district is changing."