July 28, 2005

Iraq war veteran in uphill fight for U.S. Congress

By John Whitesides, Political Correspondent

WEST UNION, Ohio (Reuters) - Five months after leaving the
battle zones of Iraq, Democrat Paul Hackett is waging an uphill
fight to make political history in a special election for the
U.S. Congress next week.

Hackett, a major in the Marine reserves who served in hot
spots like Ramadi and Fallujah, hopes to become the first Iraq
war veteran in Congress and the first Democrat to win the
heavily Republican 2nd House of Representatives District in
southwestern Ohio in more than 30 years.

He is up against tough odds, however, in Tuesday's election
to replace Republican Rob Portman, who resigned to become U.S.
trade representative. Hackett faces a well-known former state
legislator, Jean Schmidt, in a conservative district where
Portman regularly rolled up more than 70 percent of the vote.

But his military experience and tough attacks on President
Bush's conduct of the war have energized a short seven-week
campaign that otherwise would have been a sleepwalk.

Hackett has criticized Bush's decision to invade Iraq and
backs intensified training for Iraqi security forces by pairing
them with U.S. troops. He condemns Bush's failure to ask
Americans at home to share the burdens of war, complaining
about politicians who "use the war to wrap themselves in the
American flag."

"You can't fight three wars, support the troops and have a
tax cut. It's irrational," he said in an interview, calling the
administration's approach "patriotism light." Prolonged
engagements in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Balkans have strained
the economy and military, he said, and "the only people
sacrificing are the ones over there."

On the campaign trail, Hackett highlights the seven months
he spent as a civil affairs officer in Iraq and the unique
perspective it would give him in Congress.

"Anybody who served in Iraq has a better view of what's
going on over there than a politician in Washington," said
Hackett, a lawyer whose only previous political office was a
stint on a city council.

But Schmidt, who sticks close to most of Bush's political
positions and reminds audiences of her conservative views on
hot-button issues like abortion and gay marriage, said in an
interview Hackett's experience in Iraq does not make him
uniquely qualified to discuss the war.

"I don't believe it's a viable perspective, I've heard from
many people who served in Iraq who have a totally different
view," she said. "I stand with the president."

The sprawling House district covers all or parts of seven
counties in Ohio, stretching east along the Ohio River from the
affluent eastern suburbs of Cincinnati to poorer rural areas
dotted with small farming towns.

Schmidt scored a surprise win in a crowded Republican
primary in June when early favorite Pat DeWine, son of Sen.
Mike DeWine, stumbled badly to a fourth-place finish. Democrats
hope low Republican turnout and a grass-roots effort to get
Hackett voters to the polls will pay off on Tuesday.


In a district where Bush won 64 percent of the vote last
year, both candidates have run television ads featuring the
president. Hackett's first ad makes no mention of the fact he
is a Democrat, showing Bush saying "there is no higher calling"
than military service.

But Schmidt said the district is too conservative for a
Democrat, even one like Hackett.

"You know I'm pro-life," Schmidt told a crowd of about 100
people at a contentious radio debate on Tuesday night in the
small town of West Union. "There is a clear difference between
my opponent and myself on moral issues."

While Hackett supports abortion rights, he frames the issue
as part of his libertarian belief in limited government -- a
stance that also lets him stress his support for gun rights.

"I want to keep the government out of your bedroom, out of
your personal life and out of your gun safe," he said.

Hackett has tried to tie Schmidt to Ohio Gov. Bob Taft,
whose popularity plummeted in the midst of recent ethics
controversies. He referred often during the debate to the
"Taft-Schmidt administration," repeatedly calling Schmidt a
"rubber stamp" for Taft and Bush.

Schmidt supports making Bush's tax cuts permanent, which
Hackett opposes, and frequently uses phrases from Bush's
campaign stump speech. She told the crowd in West Union that
Bush was "a bold man" and "democracy is on the march" in the
Middle East.

Hackett disputed the notion, saying U.S. troops had to
finish the job in Iraq but "it's not Hollywood, it's not pretty
and we're not spreading the seeds of democracy. It's a misuse
of this great trained skilled force to do feel good things like
paint schools."