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Iraq war veteran Paul Hackett (D) fell just short of beating Republican Jean Schmidt in Tuesday’s special election in Ohio’s 2nd district. But his close call in solid Republican territory makes some Democrats think they have a winning recipe for 2006.

Namely, find other young veterans who can constructively critique the Bush administration’s foreign policy.

Hackett “did stunningly well for a first-time candidate,” said Julian Mulvey, Hackett’s media consultant. “What was so interesting about Paul is that when it comes to issues of service, duty and commitment, it was so easy to demonstrate those qualities.”

For now, at least three other veterans of either the Iraq or Afghanistan campaigns are running for Congress as Democrats next year.

Patrick Murphy, an attorney who returned from Baghdad last year, is challenging freshman Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) in the Keystone State’s competitive 8th district.

David Ashe is seeking a rematch with freshman Rep. Thelma Drake (R-Va.), who spent almost twice as much as Ashe and beat him by 10 percent last fall.

Tim Walz, for his part, served in Italy in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Now back in Minnesota, the Mankato High School teacher is taking on Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) next year.

As it happens, Murphy, Ashe and Hackett — a Marine reservist who is now being talked up as a Senate candidate next year — are all lawyers in civilian life. Ashe served six months in Iraq as a legal counsel to coalition forces before leaving active duty in November 2003.

The strategy is not new. After the Persian Gulf War in 1991, then-Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) urged the GOP to recruit heavily from the ranks of Gulf War veterans. The effort didn’t make much of a splash, but the GOP seized control of Congress in 1994 anyway.

While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said it is not recruiting Iraq war veterans per se, officials are looking for non-traditional candidates to run in districts across the country next year, spokesman Bill Burton said.

“It’s part of a broader effort to get people involved in races who are outside the traditional sense of a Congressional candidate,” Burton said.

He pointed to the candidacies of FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley in Minnesota’s 2nd district, Vanderburgh County Sheriff Brad Ellsworth in Indiana’s 8th district and former professional football player Heath Shuler in North Carolina’s 11th district.

“We just have to recruit outside the formula that folks have known for candidates,” Burton said. “Hackett being a veteran made what should have been a blowout a squeaker, which should make for a very nervous Republican Party. People want change and that’s how we’re recruiting here.”

Murphy said he thinks Hackett’s performance will make national Democrats take a closer look at seriously challenging other tough districts that might have been overlooked.

Murphy himself is running in a more competitive district but he believes that his status as a veteran gives him an advantage that other Democratic challengers may lack.

“Hi, I’m Patrick Murphy. I’m an Iraq war veteran — I served in Baghdad and I’m back home and I’m running for Congress,” is how Murphy introduces himself to potential voters.

After he gives his speech, which omits the fact that he is a Democrat, “they immediately start clapping,” Murphy said.

But Murphy does not want to be known just as a veteran.

“I’m not a one-issue person — I’m not just about Iraq and security,” he said. “I could also give you a week-long lecture about what the right to privacy is. And I’m a true Democrat.”

None of the veterans running so far say they’re doing so solely because they served in the military. But they do believe it enhances their chances of winning and of getting DCCC help.

“They think it cuts through some of the chatter, that it gives me credibility and then lets me speak about other issues,” Walz said. “It’s not what defines me as a person or a candidate, it just gives me more depth of character.”

A Democratic strategist familiar with Virginia said Ashe is the only Democrat who can win the 2nd district, which is home to many military families and veterans, because of his military background.

Ashe’s status as an Iraq war veteran was “a huge help,” in keeping his 2004 loss to just 10 points.

President Bush carried the district 58 percent to Sen. John Kerry’s (D-Mass.) 42 percent, and Drake outspent him almost 3 to 1.

“Democrats are at a disadvantage on Iraq, security and defense issues,” the source said. “If you want to win in a Republican or battleground district … you have credibility to talk about it. They can say ‘I was there — I saw firsthand.’ And I think that’s very helpful.”

Mulvey said he hopes that Hackett’s performance (he lost 51.7 percent to 48.3 percent) will cause the national party to pay more attention to hard-to-win races.

“I think we need to aggressively recruit terrific candidates across the country, and Paul Hackett proved you can find incredible Democratic candidates in the unlikeliest of places,” Mulvey said. “There’s enormous value to investing energy and resources on the part of the committees into those candidates.”

On the Republican side, there seems to be less emphasis on finding recent veterans to run for Congress.

So far none has filed and only one reportedly is mulling a bid, former Marine Captain Van Taylor, who might challenge Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas).

The National Republican Congressional Committee did not return phone calls by press time.

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