WHEATON, Ill. -- The numbers whirring upwards on Illinois Congresswoman Judy Biggert's computer screen are starting to enliven things at congressional hopeful and state senator Peter Roskam's headquarters. Each one represents a phone call to a female Republican or independent likely voter in this hard-fought suburban Chicago district, where 31-year incumbent Henry Hyde is retiring in a most difficult year for the GOP. Every vote will count, and the motherly Biggert surely helps.
Polls put this exorbitant $4 million race at a dead heat -- one of the GOP's few chances to install a freshman in 2007. A Roskam victory would deprive the Democrats of the bragging rights for capturing a longtime Republican seat. It would also keep them from filling it with a symbol of the party's renewed antiwar animus.
Democratic opponent Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Army helicopter pilot who nearly died in Iraq from injuries caused by a rocket-propelled grenade, is by now a well-recognized figure. The media coverage has been extensive, usually featuring her walking on two prosthetic legs, or speaking on stage from a wheelchair, the consummate "Fightin' Dem" in this year's security-themed elections.
She has become one of the party's most prized and strategically managed House prospects -- hand-picked by Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chair Rahm Emanuel, heavily backed by outsiders. Party figures are apparently so confident in her that they have not even bothered to require that she move into the district. (She lives in nearby Hoffman Estates, and will not be able to vote for herself on Tuesday.)
Duckworth's use of her injuries in this campaign hasn't been subtle. GOP criticism of Duckworth's foreign-policy positions attracts torrents of anger from Democratic partisans, many of whom are all too happy to impute Republican meanness toward their obviously self-sacrificial nominee. So, it's no surprise that the Roskam campaign does not even touch a volatile subject like the Democratic Party's focus on her injuries. The fact that it's a real part of the Democrats' strategy in this campaign doesn't change that at all.
Roskam endured the heaviest dose of anger a few weeks ago when, in a radio debate, he objected to the candidate's Iraq stance -- in the process saying that "the 6th Congressional District is not a cut-and-run district." The left went wild. This was interpreted to mean that Roskam was calling Duckworth a cut-and-run candidate, which, at least by inference, he was; this in turn was transformed into Roskam smearing her patriotism, which he obviously was not. A wave of media coverage followed. "I just could not believe he would say that to me," Duckworth told the Financial Times. "I have risked my life to serve my country and you cannot question my patriotism." No, you can't. Which is why no one did.
But within a few days, campaign flyers from Friends of Tammy Duckworth showed up in mailboxes accusing Roskam of just that -- questioning Duckworth's patriotism... and John McCain's. (The Arizona Republican did not authorize the move, and later protested it. He has endorsed the Republican Roskam.)
"As a combat veteran," the flyer quotes area veteran Tom Ford of the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne as saying: "I will not stand for Peter Roskam attacking John McCain and Tammy Duckworth on Social Security and immigration -- or questioning their patriotism on any other issue." Inside the flyer, side-by-side portraits of the Duckworth and McCain sit on Mr. Ford's desk.
The campaign must have been sitting on this obviously pre-planned flyer, waiting for Roskam to impugn Duckworth's patriotism. When it never happened, the campaign used the next closest occasion.
The image that Democratic strategists want is quite simple: a Republican calling a double amputee, war-wounded Army Reservist friend of John McCain unpatriotic. The fact that such a comment never was uttered or even intimated didn't matter. It didn't keep people like MSNBC's Keith Olbermann from nominating Roskam and his spokesman Jason Roe on separate occasions for "Worst Person in the World."
In some respects this is an ingenious turn of the "swift boating" tables. But it presupposes a certain stupidity among voters, that they won't know a political trick when they see one.
THERE'S NOT MUCH TALK ABOUT all this on October 21, a clear-skied Saturday when I visit the Roskam campaign housed in an old Victorian located around the corner from downtown Wheaton, to meet the candidate and staffers. Instead, the campaign's attention is focused on the "Tele-Town Hall" I'm here to watch, a "micro targeting" improvement upon those annoying campaign-season "robocalls."
The improvement: a live, talk-radio-like program hosted by the candidate, which interested answerers can join by dialing "1" and then queuing up, if they so choose, to ask questions. Or they can dial "2" for a home-delivered campaign yard sign. The whole thing lasts about an hour. At any given moment, about 300 listeners are plugged in.
"Hello, Mary from Grove Village: You're on a Tele-Town Hall with Congresswoman Judy Biggert and Republican House candidate Peter Roskam. Hello, Mary?" About one in three Marys will actually turn out be husband Michael or father Bob.
The callers query Roskam and Biggert on health care, Social Security, education, border control, immigration, guns and abortion. Strikingly, not a single question about terrorism or Iraq is asked. What does that mean? I later ask Roskam. He says he hadn't noticed; he takes it as a positive.
One South Asian-accented caller begins ranting about Mexican illegals stealing jobs; campaign staff, visibly embarrassed, cut him off. The candidate explains his border-tightening policy and moves on.
An elderly caller asks about Social Security. Roskam purrs: "I can't think of a more important government program."
A teacher asks about No Child Left Behind. Roskam and Biggert switch off with answers.
The hour-long "Tele-Town Hall" costs Roskam about $2,000 and, by my calculation, reaches more than ten percent of total likely voters in this district's 2004 House race, albeit fleetingly. Not bad in a $4 million race.
Tens of thousands of calls are placed in total. Precisely 7,650 callers joined for some portion of the hour. Another 29,942 answering-machine messages are left. This is sizable in a district of approximately 654,000, where 2004 turnout was just under 40 percent. In that election, President Bush took 53 percent of the two-party vote. Hyde's vote take shrank progressively the last two cycles; he got 65 percent in 2002, but just 56 percent in 2004 against Democrat Christine Cegelis, who was sacked in favor of Duckworth earlier this year, and who barely lost the Dems' primary.
The "turnout is crucial" line is often a canard that signals a candidate's doom. In this case, as in others around the country, this year's turnout actually could be decisive.
THERE IS A CERTAIN BRAVADO and haughtiness in the particulars of the Duckworth campaign -- the out-of-district residency, the torrent of money from Emanuel and big-city Chicago, the shunting of 2004 nominee Cegelis to make room for a favorite of the party elite.
But there is also an echo of Michael J. Fox -- who, not coincidentally, campaigned for Duckworth last week. Call it the politics of suffering. The Democratic Party is using it this year to grip voters emotionally, to help inoculate its candidates and policies from any of a number of lines of Republican criticism. It may be working. John Kerry "Reporting for Duty" didn't wash because it looked phony. But that's the last thing anyone can say about the suffering Tammy Duckworth's military service brought her.