WASHINGTON – While former Vietnam POW John McCain campaigns for the Republican presidential nomination in Florida, another retired veteran is counting on his military experience to catapult him to victory in the Sunshine State.
Retired Army Col. Allen West is campaigning in Florida's 22nd U.S. Congressional District, hoping to unseat freshman Democratic Rep. Ron Klein, who toppled 26-year Republican incumbent Clay Shaw in a contentious battle in 2006.
The well-funded and very politically active Klein is not about to give up his seat easily, but West is banking on his notoriety as much as his military experience to make his case.
West, 46, cuts an intriguing figure. He is a war hero to his supporters, but his opponents see him as a symbol of a war gone wrong.
West commanded the 2nd Battalion, 20th Field Artillery, Fourth Infantry Division in Iraq, then spent two years as a private contractor helping to train the Afghan army.
He's not only up on military and national security issues, but he has worked briefly as a teacher in the Palm Beach/Broward County area public schools.
"Allen is one of the most compelling figures I've ever worked with," said Donna Brosemer, an unpaid campaign strategist and spokeswoman for West. "He's a non-traditional candidate at a time when the public is sick of traditional candidates."
West may not be well-known all over Florida's 22nd District, but he has fans in conservative circles all across the country and in the blogosphere because of an incident in which he was involved in 2003.
He was the officer in charge on Aug. 20 of that year when soldiers under his command in Taji, Iraq, beat an Iraqi policeman they believed was hiding information about imminent attacks. Not getting the information he wanted, West took over the interrogation and, according to court reports, discharged his 9 mm pistol just above the policeman's head. According to West, the Iraqi then spilled the beans about a planned ambush.
The policeman, Yehiya Kadoori Hamoodi, told The New York Times almost a year later that he had blurted out meaningless information to West out of fear and pain. But West has said that after the confession, no further attacks were made against his battalion until the time he was relieved of duty two months later.
West was charged with assault and violating the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The military decided not to court-martial him, which would have meant years in prison and a dishonorable discharge if convicted. Instead, he was given an administrative Article 32 hearing and fined $5,000 for misconduct and assault.
An outpouring of support — the conservative blogosphere characterized West as a victim of a flawed system — and a letter signed by 95 members of Congress to the secretary of the Army may have helped West avoid more serious punishment.
Having been relieved of his command, West decided to retire from the military in 2004 after a 22-year-career. His pension and benefits intact, he moved his young family from Texas to Florida.
West said in a recent interview that he is unapologetic about his actions — he has often said he would walk through "hell with a gasoline can" to protect his troops. Nor is he bitter with the military for derailing his career. He said he walked away from the military "with a sense of pride and honor."
"I sacrificed my career for my soldiers and that's the bottom line," he said.
"Nobody likes a whiner. You make the decision, you stand by it and take responsibility for it and you accept the consequences and you move on with your life."
West's supporters say his actions reflect a man willing to make a personal sacrifice in a war zone, where the rules of engagement are muddied and can put U.S. soldiers' lives at risk; but opponents suggest West is an insensitive hothead, emblematic of the ongoing debate over harsh interrogations and continued U.S. presence in Iraq.
Everyone closely watching the 22nd District race agrees that the Taji incident will play a role if the race becomes competitive.
"We fully expect [the incident] will come up," said Brosemer, whose son was stationed in Iraq not far from West's command.
"We've seen some of the liberal blogs, where they have accused him of war crimes and of that ridiculous stuff. Our objective is to talk about Taji as much as anyone wants him to. We want people to know what really happened, as opposed to the many iterations of the story floating out there," she said.
West, of course, isn’t the only veteran running in the upcoming congressional election, but he is one of the strongest supporters of the Iraq war and the Bush administration's foreign policy. His single criticism of the conduct of the war is his claim that the Defense Department tied soldiers' hands so they could not engage the enemy effectively, both in Iraq and Afghanistan.
West also has a problem with the way Congress is debating other topics. Much has been said about the decision of CIA operatives to destroy tapes of its interrogations of two Al Qaeda prisoners, and West says that conversation should have been muted.
"It should not be an open debate," he said. "You never let your enemy know what you are going to do."
As for the debate on waterboarding and other harsh interrogation methods, West said he believes psychological intimidation has its place and should remain available so as long as physical abuse doesn't occur and the methods adhere to the Geneva Conventions.
West's detractors say his candidacy will be hurt more by his views on these current topics than by his role in the Taji incident.
"I don't understand how a career officer can support these policies. They make me scratch my head," said Mike Lumpkin, a retired Navy Seal and Iraq veteran who worked in an interrogation facility. Lumpkin, a Democrat, is running in California for the seat being vacated by Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter.
West's biggest challenge may be to get attention in the race against Klein, one of the most prolific fundraisers in the House.
Klein has been laying the bedrock for a long tenure in Congress. He has introduced and promoted legislation throughout the last year and has tried to maintain the same level of constituent services set by Shaw over the last quarter-century. He raised nearly $1.8 million for his re-election by the third quarter of 2007, compared to $42,000 for West by Dec. 31.
"If you look across the board, Congressman Klein has been left off the list of competitive House races," said Kyra Jennings, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. She said Klein has been setting himself up for a smooth re-election.
"Voters in the 22nd District sent a clear message in 2006 that they were looking for a change," Klein wrote in a statement to FOXNews.com. "I am confident that my record will stand on its own merits and have seen my support continue to grow in my district because of my work in Congress."
Mitch Caesar, head of the Broward County Democrats, said West's lack of legislative experience will hurt him in the race.
"I think the district can ill afford on-the-job training," Caesar said.
But Caesar's counterpart, Chip LaMarca, head of the Broward County Republicans and a supporter of West, said the colonel's unique background will appeal to voters.
"In the past, we've had two lawyers, or we've had two long-term politicians running. As far as that goes, West is completely different. We can offer something different," LaMarca said.
The 22nd District is hardly far-right, but rather more moderate with a slight Republican leaning. West says his positions — lower taxes, smaller government, restrictions on illegal immigration and promotion of a foreign policy that recognizes Iraq as a front in a greater war against "Islamic terrorism and its state sponsors" — will appeal to the people of this southeastern Florida district.
"[Klein] is vulnerable because he was the beneficiary of a perfect storm," West said of the 2006 midterm elections that routed GOP majorities in the House and Senate. He insists a Republican rebound is in the offing.
"I don't have to match Ron Klein dollar for dollar," he said. "There is, fortunately, an intrigue that I bring that will draw people to find what I'm all about."