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Democrat fighting to hold lead in Illinois House race

L. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq veteran, has spent $2.5 million on her fierce campaign in a GOP stronghold.

October 22, 2006|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

CHICAGO — In the crucial last weeks before election day, when every campaign dollar counts, Republicans' struggles with scandal and other woes have dominated the news -- but in the highly competitive and closely watched race for the seat of retiring Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), it's a Democrat who is doing the struggling.

As of the end of September, retired Army Maj. L. Tammy Duckworth had spent all but $206,000 of the nearly $2.8 million she raised for her campaign in the Republican stronghold of DuPage County.

One of the reasons? Trying to one-up her opponent, state Sen. Peter Roskam, in a race that heated up early. Each candidate has claimed that the other has crossed the line with negative attacks.

Though all of DuPage County's board members and countywide officeholders are Republican, the area's changing ethnic and economic makeup has given Democrats hope that they can win the seat -- as they did in 2004 in a nearby congressional district, where Democrat Melissa Bean ousted GOP incumbent Philip Crane.

"The Democrats know they are not going to take control of Congress this fall, or win the White House in 2008, if they only win blue districts," said Amy Walter, senior editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "They need for people like Tammy Duckworth to win."

For weeks, Duckworth and Roskam have disagreed on nearly every election issue, and snarled at each other in TV ads and live debates.

Roskam, backed heavily by the National Republican Campaign Committee, rolled out ads questioning Duckworth's positions on the Iraq war and the military, and slamming her stances on taxes and immigration. One campaign mailer featured a ghost and a warning: "If you vote for Tammy Duckworth, you may be visited by the 'ghost of taxes future.' "

Duckworth's campaign retaliated by pushing her beliefs and defending her stance -- perhaps too early in the race.

Trying to appeal to the changing demographics of the district, the Democrat's mail fliers touted her support of embryonic stem cell research -- opposed by Roskam -- and said that voting for Roskam was a vote for the "status quo" in Washington.

She has also criticized his opposition to abortion rights and gun-control restrictions, and his support for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage.

Roskam has called attention to Duckworth's out-of-state campaign funds and pointed out that that she lives slightly outside the district. Meanwhile, he is targeting the traditional GOP base. And he says that even though demographics are changing, the newcomers to DuPage County want the same things -- like lower taxes -- that Republicans do.

Now, in the final days of the race, Duckworth's campaign has scaled back its network television ads to save money.

Even Duckworth -- who is hoping to get a last-minute boost from a fundraiser with former President Clinton, and expects advertising support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee -- wonders whether it will be enough to win.

"It's going to be tight," Duckworth, 38, acknowledged last week.

Regardless of the discrepancy in campaign funds, political experts agree that the race will be close. A Reuters/Zogby poll released early this month showed Duckworth with an edge over Roskam, 43% to 38%.

Duckworth, whose wounds and war service inspired her to seek office -- she lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004 -- is among eight Iraq and Afghanistan veterans running for Congress. Five are Democrats in Republican districts considered to be vulnerable.

Roskam, 45, is a respected DuPage County figure and state Senate minority whip. His campaign, fortified by a recent local fundraiser attended by President Bush, still had about $1.5 million as of Sept. 30.

"We feel that we are in a very strong position for election day," said Ryan McLaughlin, Roskam's campaign manager. "This has long been a Republican stronghold, and we believe that it will continue to vote Republican come this November."

p.j.huffstutter@latimes.com

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