Democratic congressional candidate David B. Ashe introduced himself to a gathering of business leaders here as a local boy, a graduate of the high school down the road. But it didn't take long before the lawyer reminded the small group about his service thousands of miles away, as a U.S. Marine in Kuwait and Iraq after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We patrolled the streets for security, for presence, chased more than one bad guy down some alleyways," Ashe told members of the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce while campaigning for the U.S. House of Representatives. "When I win this, I will likely be the only member of Congress who's been on the ground in the war on terror."
Ashe, a political novice, is betting that his military background will help Democrats retake Virginia's 2nd Congressional District, home to the nation's largest naval base, by appealing to the region's many active-duty service members and retired war veterans.
The district -- which includes some of the state's largest cities and wealthiest suburbs -- has been firmly in Republican hands since Democrat Owen B. Pickett retired in 2001. But the sudden resignation two months ago of Rep. Edward L. Schrock (R) has sent the campaign to the top of the tiny list of the nation's most competitive House races.
Money from both sides of the political aisle is pouring into Virginia Beach, Norfolk and Hampton. Ashe and his new opponent, Del. Thelma Drake (R-Norfolk), have together raised nearly $1 million. And national campaign committees for both parties are spending even more money to flood the airwaves with television ads.
"We're really heavily into this race. It's a first-tier race for us," said Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
Drake, a realtor and veteran state lawmaker, jumped into the contest after Schrock pulled out of the race when a gay activist claimed on his Web site that Schrock had solicited gay sex. In two months, Drake has launched an aggressive campaign focused on her opposition to taxes, the district's need for better-paying jobs and support for the military.
At a Rotary Club meeting this week, she emphasized her eight years of legislative experience, her ties to the region's business community and her belief that national security is the chief issue for voters.
"That is what is top on everyone's mind," she told the weekly gathering of the Princess Anne Rotary Club. "To make sure this war on terror is fought on their soil, not on our soil."
This month, Drake took direct aim at Ashe's stand on national security. In a mailing to the district's voters paid for by the state Republican Party, she warned that Ashe's support for Democratic presidential nominee John F. Kerry would lead to "weakening the war on terror."
But Democrats said it backfired on Drake, a sentiment echoed by one of the area's major newspapers, which endorsed Ashe. The Virginian-Pilot called the Republican mailing "a cheap shot" at a distinguished Iraq war veteran who helped search for victims after the Sept. 11 attacks. And Ashe now raises the issue in his standard stump speech.
"When I was walking around Iraq wearing 25 pounds of body armor, I thought I was pretty good on the war on terror," he told the chamber group.
Drake said Ashe and the newspaper distorted the words in the mailing, which highlighted differences between the candidates on several issues, including security. The mailing "questioned his stand on the war on terror because of his support for John Kerry," Drake said. "It never questions his service. It never questions his patriotism."
Democrats said voters will elect Ashe if they know about his background. An analysis by the Democratic campaign committee says: "Internal polling shows that once voters learn that he is a Marine who served in Iraq and volunteered in the recovery efforts at the World Trade Center, he takes a 15-point lead and is not reduced even after negative attacks."
Republicans countered that Drake is well ahead of Ashe in internal polls. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) campaigned for Drake this week at a fundraiser and has promised her a seat on the Armed Services Committee.
Neither party is taking anything for granted.
The National Republican Campaign Committee just finished running a television ad that touts Drake's vote against the state's recent tax increases, noting that it "included an increase on seniors." A new ad accuses Ashe of promoting an $80 billion federal tax increase.
Ashe has said Drake is distorting his support for rolling back federal tax cuts for the rich. But he and his allies have hit back, as well. Ads paid for by Matsui's group charge that Drake has pushed for legislation that benefits real estate agents. The ads say that her campaign "took $86,000 from real estate and construction interests" and then "fought for them, pushing laws to weaken housing rules."
Drake campaign manager Jeff Palmore called the accusations "baseless." He noted that the bill cited by Democrats passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and said that "she's chairman of the Housing Commission. She's going to deal with issues that relate to housing."