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8th Congressional District: War hero vs. hero of the right

US 8th Congressional District candidates Joe Walsh-R Tammy Duckworth-D prepare for their debate Thursday October 18 2012 WTTW studios Chicago

US 8th Congressional District candidates Joe Walsh-R and Tammy Duckworth-D prepare for their debate Thursday October 18, 2012 at the WTTW studios in Chicago . | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Rep. Walsh clarifies abortion comments
Video: Full Duckworth-Walsh debate from "Chicago Tonight"
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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:42AM

With both hands on the lectern in front of him and his wife to his left, Tea Party Republican Joe Walsh carefully read from prepared remarks, seeming to work to make eye contact with reporters.

A few minutes later, the cable TV mainstay abruptly walked away from the microphones Friday and jumped into an SUV, refusing to take any questions.

It was an unusual moment for Walsh, who is typically as unscripted as he is unapologetic about what comes out of his mouth.

It came at the end of an unusual week for the congressman, who found himself trying to quell a firestorm over a remark he made about abortion — an issue he has said wasn’t on the minds of his constituency.

In Friday’s remarks, Walsh declared he wouldn’t back down from his pro-life stance. But he was backing off of remarks he made the night before that medical advances had made the notion of abortion to save a woman’s life a thing of the past.

It was a remark that Walsh likely knew could put him in dangerous territory with women in his newly redrawn, Democratic-leaning 8th Congressional District.

In an interview a week earlier, Walsh had predicted that the topic would come up in the race.

“I’m sure it’ll be something that Duckworth and the Democrats will fall back on,” Walsh predicted, then paused, pointing backward with his thumb. “But the house is burning down. We’re out of work, we’re losing our homes. That’s what we care about.”

Out of the “49,767” people he has stood before in his town hall sessions, “I’ve probably been asked about abortion six times,” he says. “I’ve probably been asked about gay marriage four times — in two and a half years.”

From ‘lace and petticoats’ to battle dress uniform

Using only her left hand to move her wheelchair, Tammy Duckworth quickly whizzes past her staff, up an incline in the parking lot of a long-term facility for children and young adults. Later at a suburban pizza place, Duckworth talks freely about her life — she was an athlete growing up. She competed internationally in discus. She rode a motorcycle.

Her mother, she says, was simply confused by her military ambitions.

“I would come home from training, and I would be in my battle dress uniform, and I’m dragging my mud-sack, and it’s nasty and mildewy, and it’s gross,” Duckworth says, laughing. “She’d look at me and was like: ‘I used to dress you up in lace and petticoats, what is going on?’ ”

Walsh has criticized Duckworth for her time working as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. One TV ad uses her image next to the man who appointed her: now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Walsh also has said that she talks too much about her military experience.

Duckworth shrugs it off.

“It’s kind of like, eh, what’s the worst he can do?” Duckworth says. “Unless someone’s threatening to blow me up, I’m not going to panic. And even when I was blown up, I didn’t panic then.”

Walsh and Duckworth are the two combatants in one of the nation’s most closely watched political battles, a race that could help determine the balance of power in Congress.

And while the 8th Congressional District fight is no doubt tame compared to Duckworth’s military exploits, it is a fight nonetheless, a war of words fueled by millions of dollars in television advertising and a seemingly growing acrimony between the candidates.

National profiles

Both Duckworth and Walsh have built national followings for different reasons. Duckworth is a war hero who could be the first Asian American elected to federal office in Illinois.

She lost both legs and partial use of her right arm when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down in Iraq eight years ago.

Walsh is a hero to the far right, having turned down a federal pension and federal health care and vowing not to serve for more than six years in Congress. But his image suffered from a highly publicized court fight with his ex-wife over more than $100,000 in back child support she said he owed.

Duckworth has had to fend off Walsh’s suggestions that she is a tool of powerful Democratic leaders who, he says, redrew the district specifically for her.

That would seem to give Duckworth in an easy lead. But SuperPACs have pumped money into the race and recently helped change the game. The conservative Now or Never SuperPAC has poured about $2 million into anti-Duckworth attack ads. And a source with knowledge of the SuperPAC funding told the Chicago Sun-Times last week that it was preparing to plow an additional $2.5 million into the race to “bury” Duckworth.

But the outside money flows in from the other side, too. The House Majority PAC spent $2.4 million in Illinois races. Part of that was focused on an anti-Walsh ad titled “Loud.”

‘Not perfect and scripted’

In an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Walsh puts both hands over his face. He rubs up and down, and his mind seems to be in another place. He tells a reporter it has nothing to do with being asked yet again about Sandra Fluke, whom Rush Limbaugh dismissed as a “slut” because of her congressional testimony about contraception.

“I’m just cold,” he says.

Walsh, who told voters in his district that Fluke should “go get a job,” is taking a break at a Starbucks across the street from the Hanover Park train station where he spent two early hours on a cold October morning greeting commuters and passing out fliers.

Walsh is a fearless, natural politician who revels in an argument and has become something of a preacher to northwest suburban audiences.

Duckworth has grown into a feistier candidate as the race has progressed. She has gone on the attack more in debates, including when she accused Walsh of preferring to let a woman die than give her the option to have an abortion.

The voters in the 8th District couldn’t have two more different candidates. In contrast to Walsh’s opposition to abortion, Duckworth supports abortion rights .

Walsh opposes gay marriage; Duckworth supports it.

Walsh wants a complete repeal of the Affordable Care Act; Duckworth supports it, though she has said she would work to soften the impact on small businesses. Duckworth believes Medicare should be a guarantee. Walsh believes Medicare will go bankrupt if it isn’t overhauled. He believes it should remain in place for those over 55 but those 54 and younger should be given a choice to stay in the system or get a federal subsidy to purchase health-care coverage.

Before Friday, Walsh made no apologies for his electrifying comments: “We’re not perfect and scripted like everything Tammy Duckworth says,” Walsh said. “I don’t care about my next election. We have a lot of newcomers in Washington who literally don’t need this job. We’re there because we feel we’re called to help. We’re not going to lose that attitude.”

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