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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 November 2006, 13:51 GMT
Iraq veteran fights mid-term battle
By Ian Brimacombe
BBC News, Illinois

In a strip mall nestled among the petrol stations and donut shops of Lombard, Illinois, Tammy Duckworth, one of the great Democratic hopefuls of this mid-term election, is selling her message to a round table of military veterans.

House Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth talks to military veterans in Illinois
Tammy Duckworth lost her legs when her helicopter was shot down

Ms Duckworth's story is well known to many by now. She was a Blackhawk helicopter pilot in Iraq. She was shot down north of Baghdad, costing her her legs and giving her a calling in politics.

She's now trying to win this western suburb of Chicago, the 6th congressional district of Illinois which, until now, has been a Republican stronghold.

She is animated as she talks about an issue close to her heart: health insurance for veterans.

"The guys that are fighting over there right now need to be taken care of," she says.

"When you go out there to fight, you need to know that your family is going to be taken care of if you don't come home."

"That's right," say a few veterans.

"Each one of us came home when a buddy didn't," she says, "and we've got to look out for each other."

'Good strategy'

Ms Duckworth's service in Iraq and her criticism of the war have allowed her to fight a close race against the experienced Republican Illinois State senator, Peter Roskam.

House Democratic candidate Tammy Duckworth talks to potential voters in Illinois
Ms Duckworth's election campaign has focused on the war in Iraq

She is one of several dozen war veterans running for office as Democrats across the country.

"It's a good strategy for them to take advantage of the situation in Iraq," says independent pollster Scott Rasmussen.

"If Iraq was not considered to be in such bad shape, Democrats would not have a chance. It's the defining topic for election 2006."

After Tammy Duckworth speaks, she is whisked off to another campaign event. But the veterans stick around and chat. They're wearing t-shirts, baseball caps and jackets with American flag patches.

She doesn't go to the movies to see what it's like. She has actually been there
US veteran William Kyle

"I don't see myself as being aligned to any particular party," says Greg Miller, who was a submariner in Vietnam. "But to me it's not a matter of politics. It's a matter of statesmanship. And Tammy's courage and her determination are without question."

Standing next to him is William Kyle, who wears a pin which reads "Don't blame me. I voted for Kerry".

"Tammy Duckworth is a frontline trooper," he says. "She doesn't read the books on what it's like. She doesn't go to the movies to see what it's like. She has actually been there."

That has been an issue for Tammy Duckworth's Republican opponent, Peter Roskam.

He has had a difficult time attacking Ms Duckworth on Iraq and security issues, so his campaign has instead focused on other issues like taxes and immigration.

'Well-oiled machine'

But Mr Roskam is a seasoned politician, and, to level the playing field, he knows how to play tough.

The day after Tammy Duckworth's veteran round table, Mr Roskam holds a slick press conference with Senator John McCain, the high-profile Republican politician who is considered one of America's greatest living war heroes.

John McCain (l) and Peter Roskam hold a press conference with veterans
Republican Senator and war hero John McCain backs Peter Roskam

The two men appear alongside several dozen other veterans, who confirm their support for Peter Roskam by publicly signing a large board.

They sing God Bless America and take the Pledge of Allegiance in unison.

One of the veterans attending the event is James Lucas, who served with the 3rd Marine division in Vietnam.

"I give Duckworth a lot of credit for protecting my freedom. I'm sorry for her loss," he says.

"But she doesn't know what our district needs. And to me, she's a carpet-bagger. She's backed by all the Hollywood people. And I think Peter Roskam supports me and my district more than she does."

Mr Roskam is thought to have the edge in this contest. He has more money, and a well-oiled Republican machine behind him.

But the polls suggest Tammy Duckworth's story has made many Republican voters sit up and think about voting Democrat.

Senator McCain knows the stakes. "My friends, this is a tough election. This is a close election," he says, before leaving the podium.

"The eyes of America will be on this race on election night."

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