Warrior candidates not yet battle-hardened, Dems worry

The band of brothers that Democrats are banking on to win back the Congress this year may inspire voters with tales of wartime valor, but many in their own party doubt they are prepared for the battlefield of professional politics.

The band of brothers that Democrats are banking on to win back the Congress this year may inspire voters with tales of wartime valor, but many in their own party doubt they are prepared for the battlefield of professional politics.

Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett, perhaps the best-known Democratic veteran running for office, energized liberals nationwide last year by criticizing President Bush during his House race but alienated conservatives in Ohio’s 2nd District by calling the president names.

Hackett stumbled in early September, Democrats add, when he failed to announce his bid to unseat Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) sooner instead of later, inviting a challenge from Rep. Sherrod Brown (D). Now the party faces a protracted primary.

Similarly, many of the 40 or so Democratic veterans running for the House who turned up on the National Mall yesterday to promote their candidacies often flout the unwritten rules of modern politicking: They mention their opponents by name, have a hard time delivering catchy stump speeches and, as one Democratic aide noted, lack a veteran politician’s “polish.”

Sam Rodriguez, the political director of California’s Democratic Party, said the veterans have had a tough time raising the money they need to stay viable. In competitive districts, House races typically run as much as $2 million to $3 million per candidate.

“A number of veterans, when becoming politically active, have a learning curve,” Rodriguez said. “You have to be disciplined in raising and knowing how to raise money.”

Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said adjusting from a military to a political mentality could prove challenging to veterans. “In some ways, you’re taking orders from, in our case, 700,000 people,” Ryan said. “Figuring out what that order is sometimes is a difficult thing.”

Other Democratic officials and activists from around the country voiced concerns that the veterans would be single-issue candidates railing against the Iraq war, or else might stumble on the campaign trail like Colleen Rowley, the former FBI agent running in Minn.-2.

Rowley’s campaign website recently posted and then removed a picture of the incumbent, Rep. John Kline (R-Minn.), in Nazi garb. Rowley attributed the gaffe — even some of Kline’s fiercest rivals call him a decent man — to an inexperienced aide.

Democratic campaign aides called Hackett and Rowley, like retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who ran a 2004 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, loose cannons who could not be counted on to say the right thing at the right time.

Many have charged forward, valiantly perhaps, into strongly held enemy ground.

While many, if not most, of the lawmakers in Washington spent years strategically jockeying for a House seat, many of the Democratic veterans are running in districts where any Democrat, seasoned politician or newcomer, would have a tough time winning: Colorado’s 5th, where Rep. Joel Hefley won 71 percent in 2004; Florida’s 6th, where Rep. Cliff Stearns won 64 percent; California’s 2nd, where Rep. Wally Herger won 67 percent; and Indiana’s 4th, where Rep. Steve Buyer, the chairman of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, won 70 percent, among others.

Tim Walz, a former Army National Guardsman who is running against Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R) in Minnesota’s 1st District, acknowledged that there are “huge challenges” facing the veterans that may not factor into other challengers’ campaigns.

Walz said that veterans’ sense of self-reliance, for instance, could hinder them. “It’s fine to be independent and to be a positive leader,” he said, “but there are people who know how to win these things, and you have to listen to them.”

The former football coach said that, at best, he sees six of the veterans winning. A Democratic campaign aide in Washington, asked which veterans showed the most promise, listed two: Tammy Duckworth, in Ill.-6, and Patrick Murphy, in Pa.-8.

Michael Duga, a spokesman for the Band of Brothers, a group dedicated to electing Democratic veterans to Congress and the organization behind yesterday’s event on the Mall, said that, at present, there are 56 running.

Despite the uphill battle, Walz said, there is a nobility in running for office. True, elections are zero-sum games, Walz conceded. But the simple act of stepping into the fray and shaping, or reshaping, the political discourse serves a greater good, he said.

Duga, like other Democrats, insisted that the veterans’ inexperience was a strategic advantage, saying that voters are tired of professional politicians, particularly given the scandals surrounding GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

Jim Dornan, a Republican consultant who most recently worked on Rep. Katherine Harris’s Senate campaign, said the Democrats’ rush to recruit veterans reflected the party’s deep-seated problems with voters.

“The Democrats have such a huge image problem that they are eager to recruit candidates like this without looking at the long-term problems these candidates can create,” Dornan said. The Democrats, he added, “are looked at with such disdain by the electorate right now, for their liberal views, their lack of agenda and their anger, quite frankly, that they are desperate to take any candidate who, at least on paper, dispels that image.”

Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who headlined the Band of Brothers event yesterday and lost three limbs while serving in Vietnam, views his fellow Democratic veterans as defenders of the American faith.

Noting that the Democrats assembled had more than 400 years of military experience together, Cleland, reading from a three-ring binder, told the veterans behind him: “The time has come for people like yourselves to put our country right again.”

David Mikhail contributed to this article.