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Iraq War Vet Planning Democratic Congress Bid

A little over a year after a rocket-propelled grenade ripped into her helicopter cockpit over Iraq and shattered her legs, Army Major L. Tammy Duckworth is out of the hospital and preparing to take on a new challenge: Congress.

The 37-year-old pilot was expected to announce Sunday afternoon that she will enter the race to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde.

Even though she's a Democrat, Duckworth believes her "leadership and ability to make tough choices" will resonate with voters in Chicago's affluent western suburbs, represented by the conservative Hyde for 32 years.

"As a soldier, when I make a decision it could actually mean that somebody might get shot at or killed," she told The Associated Press on Saturday. "I look around and see that the Bush administration has made some really bad choices when it comes to Iraq."

Political analysts expect Democrats to shine the spotlight on Duckworth and other Iraq war veterans running for office to send a message nationally that the party can be strong on defense and national security, even as many criticize Bush's handling of the Iraq war.

"It's awfully tough to attack someone who's served and sacrificed as much as she has," said Larry Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

Duckworth has degrees in political science and international affairs and describes herself as a longtime political junkie, "one of these nerdy people who sits around watching C-SPAN all day long."

The idea to run blossomed this year after she attended the State of the Union address as a guest of Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., and later testified before veteran affairs committees on Capitol Hill.

"I have an opportunity here, because people are actually listening to me because I'm an injured vet," said Duckworth, who uses a wheelchair and prosthetic legs. "That's great. I'll let you look at my legs all day long if you listen to me gripe on about how we need to have affordable health care for all Americans."

Duckworth says her campaign will focus on health care, education and improving the U.S. economy's position globally, but the war is sure to take center stage.

She does not favor an immediate troop withdrawal but prefers setting "benchmarks" for leaving Iraq, such as pulling out U.S. battalions one-for-one as Iraqi security battalions take over. Privately, she opposed starting the war.

Duckworth's likely opponents approach her candidacy cautiously, praising her military service while noting her lack of political experience.

"Just a remarkable person -- great citizen solider," said Republican state Sen. Chris Lauzen, who supports GOP candidate and state Sen. Peter Roskam.

"Isn't the lady going through enough right now, and you're going to send her through this tough campaign?" Lauzen said. "What is the basis of her appeal? Courage. I don't think that necessarily qualifies her to go to Congress."

Other Democrats in the March 21 primary complain that national party leaders are meddling, noting Duckworth doesn't even live in the district. Duckworth, who lives two miles outside the district, thinks voters will look beyond that issue.

Her opponents have a head start when it comes to fundraising because Duckworth had to delay her candidacy until her release from active duty, which was granted Wednesday. But Democrat Christine Cegelis, a businesswoman and candidate, sees other benefits.

"It's going to add some visibility, more national attention, to the race," Cegelis said.