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The Audacity of Honor

8:38 PM, Sep 17, 2008 • By MARY KATHARINE HAM
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Backing the mission in the worst of times has brought better political times to the candidates of Veterans for Freedom.

When John McCain first started saying he'd "rather lose an election than see the country lose a war," it was a serious aside in a self-deprecating assessment of his own uncertain political future.

He'd chuckle and deliver his reworking of Chairman Mao's line, "It's always darkest before it's totally black." He was speaking of himself, but he could just as easily have meant Iraq, to which his future had become so inextricably linked.

In the darkest days for the Iraq mission, in 2006, a handful of Iraq and Afghanistan vets formed an organization designed to defend progress and urge patience to those in Washington who wanted the U.S. to abandon the field.

Since, then, instead of total blackness, the non-partisan Vets for Freedom and McCain have met an astonishing political dawn that has put them both in an unexpected position: on the offensive.

Vets for Freedom is endorsing 23 candidates for Congress this year, 17 of which are veterans of the current conflict, up from just three candidates endorsed in 2006.

Fifteen of those men were on Capitol Hill today, urging senators to sign onto Senate Resolution 636, "Recognizing the strategic success of the troop surge in Iraq and expressing gratitude to the members of the United States Armed Forces who made that success possible," including Gen. David Petraeus.

The Hill visits came after the morning release of an ad hitting Barack Obama for his longtime refusal to acknowledge the surge's success.Obama told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly in a September interview that the surge "succeeded beyond our wildest dreams," but the Democratic presidential candidate has not signed on to the resolution.

David Bellavia, co-founder of Vets for Freedom and a Medal of Honor nominee for his feats in Fallujah, visited Obama's Senate office and was told the candidate may sign on to a Democrat-crafted alternative with reportedly weaker language (right after he was told VFF's ads about Obama are "hateful").

"It's missing some important parts," Bellavia said of the competing resolution, which hasn't been finalized. "Petraeus's name and the surge working-the whole essence of what we were going for."

These days, McCain's oft-repeated line about losing elections sounds more like a rallying cry than a resignation, and with good reason. Many of the Vets for Freedom congressional candidates' fortunes have risen along with those of the country where they fought.

But the electoral forecast isn't exactly sunny. Of the 15 Vets for Freedom on hand today, only two are running in "toss-up" districts, as designated by the Cook Political Report. Duncan Hunter is running in the solidly Republican 52nd District of California. The rest are facing some pretty blue territory.

Steve Stivers, who is racing for the retiring Rep. Deborah Pryce's seat in the toss-up 15th District of Ohio, said the Republican Party is trailing in registration, but the gap won't necessarily translate into victory on Election Day.

"I don't think the voters' behavior has changed," he said, blaming Democratic gains on the relatively dull Republican primary, which was decided before Ohio voters went to the polls.

Others facing more difficult fights said they're benefiting from the Palin effect on Republican enthusiasm and the absence of Hillary Clinton from the Democratic ticket.

Col. Thomas Manion, a career Marine who decided to run soon after his son was killed by sniper fire in Fallujah last year, is facing the only anti-war veteran of the current conflict who won a congressional race in 2006-Rep. Patrick Murphy.

"We didn't have the kind of leadership we needed in Washington," he said of his district. "My only regret is my son isn't here to see that on the streets he fought and gave his life on, the Iraqi children play now."

Manion said his polling shows he's gained 10 points on his opponent since May. In a district that went 63-37 percent for Hillary in the Democratic primary, Murphy was an early and vocal Obama backer.

"They just don't like the top of the ticket," he said of voters.

Lee Zeldin, running in the heavily Democratic 1st District of New York, is counting on veteran turnout and Palin power to put him over the top in his bid to unseat six-year incumbent Tim Bishop.

"There's no scientific way to measure it," but women are especially energized by Palin, he said. "They're all an inch taller when you mention her."

For some of them, the politics of the war is personal in a way it isn't for many candidates.