HAGERSTOWN -- From the front of a local union hall, Andrew Duck delivered a campaign pitch on traditional Democratic issues: health care, schools and helping the middle class.
On a table at the rear of the room were representations of what led the Western Maryland native back home and into congressional politics: tiny rubber ducks in green Army garb.
Duck ended his 20-year Army career in 2004, after a stint in Iraq left him too dispirited to stay in the service. He had been gearing up to try for a local political office when friends persuaded him to take on Republican Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett.
Duck, who faces two other Democrats in the September primary, has been struggling to raise money and spread his message, but he's getting help from a new group of comrades in arms: fellow Democratic veterans around the country who are making the leap from soldier to politician.
More than 50 veterans are running for the House of Representatives as Democratic candidates this year. Many are Vietnam-era veterans, though several served in at least one of the Persian Gulf wars and others fought in places such as Bosnia and Afghanistan.
Two are running in Maryland: Duck, 43, of Brunswick, and Mishonda M. Baldwin, 34, of Columbia.
'Band of Brothers'
Many of these candidates are considered long shots, but their informal network is growing into a movement. They rely on one another for advice and are getting financial support and publicity through a "Band of Brothers" political action committee that Mike Lyon, a Virginia-based political consultant, formed to help veterans win elections.
"We all individually decided that we needed to do something to save our country, and the instinct among soldiers is to build a team," Duck said. "Teamwork comes naturally."
Baldwin is competing with several other Democrats in the primary election for the Baltimore-area seat being vacated by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is running for the Senate. She joined the Army Reserve at 17 to help pay for college and was deployed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Retired from the military, she works as a lawyer and is studying at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington.
Her decision to run was inspired by the government's mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, said Baldwin, adding that she had no idea so many veterans were candidates until she became one.
"I met up with these people, and it was absolutely amazing," she said. "It was inspiring, and it just gets better and better."
Some of the Fighting Dems, as the Democratic National Committee calls them, are drawing plenty of attention - and money. Tammy Duckworth, an active Army National Guard major who lost both legs while serving in Iraq as a helicopter pilot, was heavily recruited by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Last month, Duckworth became the Democratic nominee in the contest to replace retiring Rep. Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, a Republican.
Influential Democrats, including Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, have tapped their own donor networks to encourage support for Duckworth and some other veterans, including Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania, who is seeking the nomination to take on Republican Rep. Michael G. Fitzpatrick in suburban Philadelphia.
Another group, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee, has endorsed a number of veteran candidates, including Duckworth, Fitzpatrick, Duck and Andrew Horne, who is challenging Republican Rep. Anne M. Northrup in Kentucky.
The PAC's board includes retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, a former Democratic presidential candidate who is also part of the DNC's Veterans and Military Families Council, and Paul Hackett, an Iraq vet who ran a close race in Ohio during a special election last summer.
But many of these novices are struggling to raise campaign money. Duck, for example, collected about $55,000 in the first three months of this year, according to campaign manager Adam Schultz. By contrast, Bartlett, the Republican incumbent, had more than $350,000 in his campaign account at the end of March.
Baldwin, who entered her race late last year, said she initially focused on getting her name out to voters rather than raising money. According to Federal Election Commission records, she raised just over $19,000 in the first three months of this year.
While national Democrats have poured money into Duckworth's campaign, lower-profile candidates haven't fared as well.
For example, Maryland Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the No. 2 Democrat in the House, usually shies away from donating in contested primary races. But with Duckworth attracting support from other top Democrats - including House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California and Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada - Hoyer's political action committee donated $5,000.
Duck and Baldwin, however, have received nothing yet from Hoyer. They said they have been leaning on fellow veterans, almost all of whom are also first-time campaigners, as they try to raise their profile.
"I'm looking to the other people who are fighting the same way I am, and those are the people I think we can draw our strength from," Duck said. "I would love for the party to support me the same way they support Tammy Duckworth - but I'm not going to sit around and wait for it."
Veterans as assets
In an election in which Democrats are eager to shore up their credibility on national security, veterans could be an asset. One key to the party's strategy is convincing voters that Democrats would do a better job of protecting the country, strengthening the military, shoring up defenses against terrorist attacks and preparing for disasters.
At the same time, however, voters look to House candidates on issues close to home, said Paul S. Herrnson, a political scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.
"Remember, congressional races are local contests," Herrnson said. "The fact that 50-some-odd candidates are veterans is not going to do much to change the party's national image on national security."
Running as a veteran also means addressing the issue of Iraq head-on - a delicate subject for Democrats, who have split along different lines since the initial vote to authorize the use of force. Even as public opinion has turned against the war, factions in the party have been unable to state a unified position.
Herrnson said a successful candidate would tie the war, from its planning to the present sectarian strife, to other missteps by the Bush administration, including the response to Hurricane Katrina. Ultimately, he said, a candidate has to connect those larger issues to local problems.
At the union hall, Duck attempted to do just that. He criticized the Bush administration and congressional Republicans, calling the government "weak and inefficient" because of the "cronyism and corruption" in Washington.
He talked briefly about his military service, but voters were more interested in his positions on immigration (he favors cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers), outsourcing (he thinks the government should stop giving tax breaks to companies that move jobs overseas) and the No Child Left Behind Act (he believes it is "a failure and should be scrapped").
After the speech, Ron Maners, the head of the local chapter of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Council of Carpenters, said he was impressed with Duck's positions and his eagerness to court the union group, something he said Bartlett has never done during 13 years in Congress.
Duck "has shown us that he is for the working man, the regular guy," Maners said.