Democrats Run Iraq Veterans for Congress

Across the U.S., Democrats have nominated veterans of the war in Iraq to run for office. In Pennsylvania's 8th District, freshman Republican Michael Fitzpatrick faces a challenge from veteran Patrick Murphy.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer in for Renee Montagne.

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And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

For the second straight election, Democrats hope candidates with military experience will overcome their longtime weakness on national security. In 2004, Democrats nominated Vietnam veteran John Kerry for president. In 2006, the party has actively recruited veterans of the war in Iraq.

In a moment, NPR's Cokie Roberts helps us understand how those candidates fit into the larger campaign.

We begin in Pennsylvania's 8th Congressional District. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams is tracking the campaign of one of the veterans.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Patrick Murphy served a tour as an army captain in Iraq before coming back to this suburban Philadelphia district. Murphy, a 32-year-old who taught Constitutional law at West Point before going to Iraq, wants U.S. troops drawn down within the year, as he argued at a candidate debate one early morning in Doylestown.

Mr. PATRICK MURPHY (Democratic Candidate for Congress, Pennsylvania): I absolutely believe that we need to give the Iraqis a timeline; a 12-month timeline to show the Iraqis that they need to come off the sidelines and fight for their country, fight for their democracy.

WILLIAMS: Murphy's opponent is a first-term Republican congressman, 43-year-old Mike Fitzpatrick. Fitzpatrick is strongly opposed to setting any timetable for withdrawal.

Representative MIKE FITZPATRICK (Republican, Pennsylvania): Well, first of all, let me say I disagree with Pat Murphy's assessment that we need an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. It would create a vacuum, perhaps provide a terror training ground for al-Qaida and other terrorists. And it would also send a terrible message to our allies and to the Iraqis who have been counting on us.

WILLIAMS: But while the Democratic Party hoped the presence of a war veteran -as Fitzpatrick's opponent - would force a debate on the war, many voters here are proving to be much more interested in local issues.

(Soundbite of train stopping)

WILLIAMS: At 6:49 AM on the platform at the Bristol train station, Lola Fallon(ph) is catching the R-7 SEPTA train into Philadelphia. She has a lot on her mind this election season, but it has nothing to do with the war.

Ms. LOLA FALLON: There's a lot in the world, but…

WILLIAMS: But what's making you think, you know…

Ms. FALLON: Making me think? It's the school killings. That's number one, with my child in school.

WILLIAMS: Alan McFarland(ph) drives a bus that stops at the Bristol Station. What's on his mind?

Mr. ALAN MCFARLAND (Bus driver): I'm a senior citizen, so you tell me. Social Security - what they're going to do with it, and I hope what they don't do with it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: This concern for local issues was reflected in the Doylestown candidates' debate. Many of the questions coming from the audience were about stem cell research or whether the No Child Left Behind program is helping local schools. Or, as Republican Congressman Fitzpatrick talks about here, the inheritance tax and its effect on farms and small businesses.

Rep. FITZPATRICK: We're taxed in the United States of America from the time we're born, through our youth, our jobs, into our retirement. I call it no taxation without respiration. If you're not breathing…

WILLIAMS: Democrat Murphy responded by arguing that eliminating the inheritance tax would be a tax break for the super rich. He said there are already exemptions for family farms and estates valued at less then $5 million.

Mr. MURPHY: That's fine. That's only for $5 million. That's the Paris Hilton tax cut. So if Mike Fitzpatrick wants to stand with Paris Hilton, let him stand with Paris Hilton. I'm going to stand with the family farmers…

WILLIAMS: Murphy and Fitzpatrick also trade sharp words over veteran's benefits. But after the debate, Jim McComb(ph), who is post commander at the Doylestown Veterans of Foreign Wars, said it makes no difference to him that Murphy is a veteran.

Mr. JIM MCCOMB (Post Commander, Doylestown Veterans of Foreign Wars): From my perspective, I don't think it does. Until Congress breaks out in combat I don't know that a veteran has any advantage over anybody else.

WILLIAMS: But without the Democrats' military credentials it's very possible that we wouldn't be talking about this.

Professor CHRISTOPHER BORICK (Political Science, Muhlenberg College): It would be a competitive race, but I believe it would not be nearly as close.

WILLIAMS: Professor Christopher Borick is a political scientist at Muhlenberg College.

Prof. BORICK: It's a consummate case of a national issue trying to be localized in a congressional race. And in this case, Murphy's candidacy has indeed moved that issue up to a place where it's taking a prominent role in the election.

(Soundbite of drums)

WILLIAMS: The Palisades High School band of Pirates marched around the school parking lot at sunset as the candidates prepared for their second debate of the day. About 200 people filed into the plush school auditorium in this rural section of Bucks County. Vick Stevens(ph) is a Murphy supporter who connects the Democrats' opposition to the war with local issues.

Mr. VICK STEVENS: The people don't know why these kids are getting killed. Because what's our goal over there? We have so many problems to take care of here in the United States, and yet they won't even help the poor people here.

WILLIAMS: At the debate, each candidate had the chance to ask his opponent a final question. Mirroring the strategy of Democrats around the country, Democrat Murphy asked about Iraq.

Mr. MURPHY: Congressman Fitzpatrick, when are you going to give the American public the straight story on where you are with the war on Iraq?

WILLIAMS: And like many of his fellow Republicans around the country, Republican Fitzpatrick asked about a local issue.

Rep. FITZPATRICK: My question is this, Pat: how many school districts are there in Bucks County and what are their names?

WILLIAMS: It's a strategy that may just determine which party will control the House in the next Congress. Juan Williams, NPR News.

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