SAN DIEGO — One thing is certain about the Nov. 4 election: A veteran of the war in Iraq will be elected to Congress from the 52nd Congressional District in eastern San Diego County.
Iraq veterans fared poorly as candidates nationwide in 2006, with only one elected to Congress, narrowly defeating an incumbent in Pennsylvania. Other veterans failed to make their service a sufficient selling point to voters.
But in the 52nd District, both major candidates have combat experience in Iraq.
Republican Duncan D. Hunter served in Iraq as a Marine artillery officer; Democrat Mike Lumpkin as a Navy SEAL commander. They also served in Afghanistan.
Both mention their military service frequently on the stump. Their websites feature pictures of them in uniform -- Lumpkin against an American flag, Hunter in combat gear standing next to a mural of Saddam Hussein.
Hunter, 31, is running to succeed his father, Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, a 14-term member of Congress who opted not to run again after a failed bid for the GOP nomination for president.
Lumpkin, 43, just retired after two decades in the Navy.
Despite their similar experiences, the two candidates have different views about Iraq.
Hunter believes that the U.S. military surge in Iraq is working and that the U.S. is on the verge of victory.
"I don't think you ought to have a timeline" for withdrawal, he said in a debate this week on KPBS-FM (89.5). "The job is done when the military leaders on the ground say it's done."
Lumpkin says talk of the surge gives a false impression of what's happening in Iraq.
"When we stop paying the tribal sheiks, you're going to see a spike in violence," he said during the debate. He argues that the U.S. should move forces to the borders to prevent Iraq from being attacked and then allow Iraqi officials to solve their problems without U.S. supervision, and he's not opposed to a timeline for U.S. withdrawal.
When Lumpkin criticized the amount of money that the U.S. is spending in Iraq, Hunter responded, "How much is it worth not to be attacked again like 9/11?"
When Hunter praised the strategy of Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, Lumpkin said, "Frankly, how do you win an occupation? . . . What is lacking is a cogent exit strategy."
The numbers favor Hunter in a district that includes the eastern edge of San Diego and several suburban cities and neighborhoods stretching to the Imperial County line. President Bush trounced Democrat John F. Kerry in the 52nd District in 2004.
Also on the 52nd District ballot is Libertarian Michael Benoit, 57, a Lakeside business owner, making his fifth run since 2000. Benoit, whose share of the vote has hovered between 3% and 4%, wants U.S. troops out of Iraq immediately, according to his website.
Republicans have a 13-percentage-point registration edge (44% to 31%) over Democrats. The Democratic National Congressional Committee has the 52nd District on its "watch" list -- a signal that it feels an upset is a possibility -- but has not put any money into the campaign.
Lumpkin presses on. Like the top of his party's ticket, he feels change is in the air. He's confident that he can draw from independents and Republicans who may have liked Hunter the elder but are "not sure they want to elect the congressman's kid."
The political advantages of being the incumbent's son are apparent: access to contributor lists and campaign strategists who know the district's neighborhoods and their voting patterns. But Lumpkin hopes there is a downside too.
"Nepotism in politics is an atrocious precedent," he said in an interview. "It smacks of a monarchy, building a dynasty."
Hunter doesn't mind at all that Lumpkin refers to him as the incumbent's son.
"I think he's done a fantastic job," he said of his father.