Illinois House Race Pits Duckworth, Roskam

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Illinois has a congressional race being watched closely this fall: Tammy Duckworth vs. Peter Roskam, in the race to replace outgoing Rep. Henry Hyde.


The war in Iraq is one of the top issues on voters' minds heading into the mid-term elections. And in Illinois, it has taken center stage in the race for the House seat that's being vacated by Republican Henry Hyde. Hyde is stepping down after 32 years in office, and Democrats hope to win his old district with a veteran of the Iraq war as their candidate.

CHERYL CORLEY: It's been called Republican country for the longest time - the 6th Congressional District in Illinois about 30 miles west of Chicago in DuPage County. You wouldn't know it, though, by the response Democrat Tammy Duckworth gets when she walks into Maxfield's Pancake House.

Ms. TAMMY DUCKWORTH (Democratic Congressional Candidate, Illinois): Oh, my God, what a (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman: Nice to meet. I wish you the best of luck.

Ms. DUCKWORTH: Thank you so much.

Unidentified Woman: Tammy is running for Congress.

CORLEY: This is a familiar campaign spot for Duckworth. Her campaign office is nearby. A major in the Army, Duckworth lost both her legs when a rocket-propelled grenade smashed into the helicopter she was flying in Iraq. Now she walks carefully on artificial legs with the help of a cane. Joining a group of Democrats who were just about to order lunch, Duckworth popped off a leg and propped it against a seat.

Ms. DUCKWORTH: I know that looks really bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUCKWORTH: But it's much more comfortable. Just step over that leg.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. DUCKWORTH: I hope I don't freak anybody out, but…

CORLEY: Duckworth is one of the fighting Dems, military veterans recruited by the party to blunt any perception that it's Republicans who are more concerned about national security. Duckworth says she doesn't regret her service in Iraq, but thinks it was a grave mistake for the U.S. to go into the country.

Ms. DUCKWORTH: We need to immediately start the draw down tied to the train up of the Iraqi forces. So on January of 2007 I want an immediate accounting of how many Iraqi security forces can do their jobs. And if it's just two guys manning a traffic checkpoint in Al Kut, let's bring two Americans home.

Unidentified Male #1: Hey guys.

Unidentified Male #2: Hey kids, what's going on?

Unidentified Male #3: James, how are you?

CORLEY: At a candidate's forum at Glenbard East High School, Illinois State Senator Peter Roskam - the Republican candidate - takes a few minutes to kiss his kids and greet other family members. Roskam commends Duckworth for her service, but stresses he's the local guy.

State Senator PETER ROSKAM (Republican, Illinois): Let me give you the three by five card version of Peter Roskam so that you know…

CORLEY: Roskam grew up in the area. He says he's knocked on thousands of doors during the campaign and found a variety of opinion over Iraq.

State Senator ROSKAM: There's a lot of legitimate questions to ask and to be answered about Iraq, but I do believe that the attitude of the 6th Congressional District is to finish and to finish well. My opponent has criticized that, saying it's not a policy. Of course it's not a policy. It's a goal.

CORLEY: Outgoing Congressman Henry Hyde survived a strong challenge by a Democrat two years ago. That race stirred the hopes of national Democratic leaders, who began eyeing the district in earnest. Republicans, determined to hold onto the seat, brought in one of their biggest fundraisers last week.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

Announcer: Ladies and gentleman, the President of the United States.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Thank you all very much.

CORLEY: The event grossed more than a million dollars. Roskam has nearly seven times more cash on hand right now than Duckworth, but she expects a visit of her own from former President Bill Clinton. During a recent debate, the candidates clashed over a variety of issues. The war was a major concern, but for some voters like Republican Jeff McElhaney(ph), other issues will drive his vote. He likes Roskam's opposition to abortion.

Mr. JEFF MCELHANEY (Roskam Supporter): I know, you know, the finances are important. I know the economy's important. I know that. But it just seems like there's a baby dying. So it's easy choice for me for Peter Roskam. It's sort of black and white here.

CORLEY: For Democrat Eva McCormick(ph), a retired occupational therapist, the war in Iraq is the dominant issue.

Ms. EVA MCCORMICK (Duckworth Supporter): And I think it's very important to get our soldiers back and get some solutions and get some answers. And I think she pointed that out in the debate, that there's no accountability and that she would look into that.

CORLEY: Whether it's the war or other issues, Duckworth and Roskam offer a clear contrast for voters who will decide whether the 6th district will remain true to its long held Republican roots or branch off in a new direction.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News.

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