SEAMAN, Ohio – A few months ago, Paul Hackett was flushing out insurgents and avoiding ambushes in Fallujah, Ramadi and other hotspots in the Iraq. Today, the Marine is trying to round up votes in small southern Ohio towns like this one.
Hackett, a Democrat, is running in a special election Aug. 2 in a bid to become the first Iraq war (search) veteran elected to Congress.
So at dawn on a recent day, he was having eggs and toast at the Cruiser Diner, recounting his war experiences to a young soldier facing Iraq duty later this year.
Later that day, he was campaigning among avid hunters in Adams County, telling them about the guns he keeps at home and joking: "I thought gun control was when you hit your target."
And in the town of Peebles, he found himself talking with two retired veterans about tattoos, like the Marine emblem he has over his heart.
The 43-year-old lawyer, former Milford city councilman and Marine Reserve major is hoping his battlefield experience will help him become the first Democrat to get elected in Ohio's conservative 2nd District in three decades.
He is facing a well-known, experienced Republican — former state Rep. Jean Schmidt — in the seven counties stretching eastward from the Cincinnati suburbs through largely rural areas.
Hackett said he was urged by friends to run when he returned from Iraq in March. He calls his candidacy "a natural extension" of his military service, and says going to Congress as the lone Iraq war veteran could give him a voice on the war and related issues.
Although Hackett initially opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq as a pre-emptive war (search) that "set a bad precedent," he now says: "We're there now. My Marines are over there fighting. We can't cut and run .... I want to see what we're doing in Iraq work out."
He said training of Iraqi forces must be dramatically improved, and U.S. units should be paired with Iraqi units for "24-7" teamwork and training.
For her part, Schmidt has said that she supported the war from the beginning and that Iraqi troops need to be trained to defend their country before the U.S. pulls out.
Schmidt and Hackett both espouse fiscal conservatism and limited government, although she goes into more detail with proposals such as eliminating estate and capital gains taxes (search) and instituting a flat tax (search). Another difference: He supports abortion rights (search), while she heads the Cincinnati area Right to Life.
A Hackett TV commercial that began airing this week opens with a clip of President Bush saying: "There is no higher calling than service in our armed forces." Hackett also recounts his decision to volunteer last year to serve seven months in Iraq.
That Hackett is on television at all is remarkable in deep-red southwestern Ohio, which helped tilt Ohio's crucial 20 electoral votes to Bush last year. Seven-term Republican Bob Portman (search) regularly won with more than 70 percent of the vote before leaving Congress to becoming Bush's U.S. trade representative this year.
Army Lt. Paul Worley, 23, of Peebles, said he likes the idea of a congressman veteran as he prepares for Iraq duty later this year: "You can't substitute anything for leadership by example, somebody who's been there and seen it."
Others do not see Hackett's military background as reason to vote for him.
"He was in the military; there's been a lot of people in the military," said David Werring, a farmer who served in the Marines. "It's nice, but I want to get down to the real issues."
He cites Schmidt's push for a national energy policy that would include more emphasis on ethanol.
Schmidt, 53, has been in politics most of her life, as a GOP official, township trustee or state legislator, and has emphasized her experience.
Stuart Rothenberg, editor of a nonpartisan Washington political report, said a Hackett victory would be "a mega-surprise" in the heavily Republican district.
As the election nears, Hackett is getting more help from state and national Democrats, with a $1,000-a-head fund-raiser with strategist James Carville this week, and a campaign visit Thursday by Max Cleland (search), the disabled Vietnam veteran and former senator from Georgia.
Launching into a 15-hour day of campaigning, Hackett scoffed as he recalled someone telling him how hard the campaign life was: "I get to see my family at home every night; that's better than being in Iraq. The potshots I take .... are better than the potshots in Iraq."