WASHINGTON - While fighting in Iraq, a private asked then-Capt. Patrick Murphy why U.S. forces were in the Persian Gulf nation and was told it didn't matter; there was a job to do and just try to return home safely.
"That wasn't the time to question our government," Murphy recalled.
Now, however, Murphy and five other veterans of the war are asking questions about President Bush's policies in Iraq as part of their broader Democratic campaigns to win congressional seats in next year's elections.
Given their experience in Iraq, the six Democrats in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia say they are eminently qualified to pose the tough questions. Their reservations mirror public opinion, with an increasing number of Americans expressing concern about the mission and favoring a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.
The most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll showed only 37 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, with 62 percent disapproving.
This summer, Democrat Paul Hackett, an Iraq war veteran, nearly defeated Republican Jean Schmidt in a special election in an Ohio district considered a GOP stronghold. Hackett focused on his wartime experience and his opposition to Bush's policies.
On Monday, with support from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and other party leaders, Hackett decided to seek a higher office, the Senate seat now held by two-term Republican Mike DeWine, said spokesman David Woodruff.
"Some guys don't think it's time to question our government, but the fact is I love my country," said Murphy, 31, a lawyer who fought with the 82nd Airborne Division. "We need to have an exit strategy now."
Murphy is challenging first-term Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick, a Republican in the northern Philadelphia suburbs of the 8th District.
Another Iraq war veteran, Texas Republican Van Taylor, is also running for a House seat, but he backs President Bush.
In 1974, public outrage over the Watergate scandal and Republican President Richard M. Nixon's administration swept a class of reform-minded Democrats into office. It's too soon to measure the impact of the war on the 2006 elections, but the handful of veterans pursuing seats in the House is an early indicator.
The Democratic veterans walk a fine line as they reach out to voters who may question Bush's handling of the conflict. The task is to challenge the administration while still being seen as patriotic.
David Ashe, who spent most of 2003 working as a Marine judge advocate general in Iraq, chooses his words carefully when asked whether the United States should have invaded.
There's no reason to "Monday morning quarterback the decision," said Ashe, 36, who is trying to unseat first-term Republican Rep. Thelma Drake in Virginia's 2nd District. "I would say we're in the right position to succeed. Whether or not we're going to get that success remains to be seen."
Although they often talk tough about the Bush administration, some of the candidates don't fit the typical anti-war image, said Charles Sheehan-Miles, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense.
"They really want to help the Iraqi people and see the mission through, and they think we're losing because of stupid mistakes made at the senior leadership level," Sheehan-Miles said.
Historically, war experience has added to a candidate's credibility. As many as 70 percent of lawmakers in the 1950s were war veterans, but only about 40 percent of the members of Congress today have military experience.
During the Vietnam War, there was such a "collective funk" that veterans felt free to criticize, said John Johannes, a political science professor at Villanova University. A few, like Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., got their political start as anti-war activists.
Veterans today have an advantage because Americans have a positive feeling about soldiers, said John Allen Williams, a political scientist at Loyola University in Chicago.
"Unlike Vietnam, people who do not like the war are not blaming the veterans," Williams said.
But that will not guarantee success, contends Ed Patru, deputy communications director for the National Republican Congressional Committee. Democratic war veterans who are seen as liberal on other issues aren't going to be popular with voters, he said.
"I think a lot of Democrats are looking at what happened in Ohio and trying to duplicate that around the country," Patru said.
Taylor, 33, a Republican businessman from West Texas, supports Bush's policies. He is a major in the Marines reserves, and, like the Democrats, cites his war experience.
"The war on terror is going to be with us for a long time and Congress is going to grapple with the war on terror," Taylor said. "We need policy-makers who know what it means to make war."
Bryan Lentz, 41, an attorney from Swarthmore, Pa., volunteered to go to Iraq at age 39 with a civil affairs unit. The Army reserves major was so disillusioned by the lack of a plan in Iraq that he decided while he was in Iraq to run for Congress.
He is trying to unseat 10-term GOP Rep. Curt Weldon, who is vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
"I'm not anti-war, I'm anti-failure," Lentz said. "We need to define what victory is and we need to set a plan to get there. You cannot stay the course if you do not set a course."
Copyright 2005 Associated Press