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Army of One

Paul Hackett's near-victory

Has a loser ever looked so cocky? When Paul Hackett mounted a Cincinnati stage on Tuesday night, he had a DJ cue up Wild West music and then twirled and holstered an imaginary pistol for his delighted supporters, who cheered wildly. A clueless interloper would surely guess that this Iraq veteran-turned- Democratic hero had just triumphed in what was the most-hyped congressional special election in years. In fact, Hackett had just lost his race to Republican Jean Schmidt by a 48-52 margin. Flashing his self-assured smile at the back of the room, Hackett spotted a young female staffer in tears. "Knock off the cryin'!" he called out to her. "There's nothing to cry about here. This was a success. So let's rock on!"

A few months earlier, the lanky, handsome, 43-year-old Hackett had been a Marine serving in Falluja, Iraq. Then the local Republican representative, Rob Portman, left his seat to become U.S. trade representative. The race seemed hopeless for Democrats: The rural and exurban Cincinnati-area district gave Bush 64 percent of its vote in 2004 and hadn't sent a Democrat to Congress in over 30 years. But, as Hackett made an unexpectedly strong run for the seat, he became his party's hottest commodity since Barack Obama shot into orbit. The combination of his Iraq service and his defiant talk--Hackett openly called George W. Bush a "chicken hawk" and a "son of a bitch," and called the war in which he served "a misuse of the military"--made liberals swoon. The New York Times profiled him on page one, and the blogosphere raised some $500,000 for him in just a few weeks. Though he came up short, his showing on Tuesday night was, as The Cincinnati Enquirer put it, "nothing short of astounding."

Within hours, national Democrats were already spinning Hackett's close defeat as a sign that they are poised to win back Congress in 2006. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), argues that "these are the early vibrations on the track." Hackett, he says, was just the sort of "change agent" that malcontented voters fed up with Bush, Iraq, and Washington corruption are looking for.

That may be true. But Democrats shouldn't assume a Hackett victory ordains a massive comeback for their party. His opponent was an uncharismatic, washed-up ex-state representative. And his candidacy combined two elements--his stirring Iraq service and the full firepower of the liberal blogosphere--in a way that few other Democrats will be able to replicate come fall of 2006.

It’s Hard To underestimate how central Hackett's identity as an Iraq veteran was to his candidacy. Every piece of campaign literature I saw prominently featured a photograph of him in combat fatigues. In the days before the election, his campaign had a grizzled World War II vet named Butch cruise local roads in an old military Jeep, complete with a .30-caliber mounted machine gun and a VETERANS FOR HACKETT sign. The same went for Hackett's campaign appearances. During a grip-and-grin appearance outside a local GE aerospace plant, Hackett wore a proud to have served pin as he shook workers' hands.

As his aides handed out flyers nearby, they cut straight to the chase: "Please vote for Paul Hackett. He just got back from Iraq." The impact of this one-liner was plain to see. The worn-out workers would emerge from their shifts with a disinterested look, until the I-word stopped them in their tracks. "Did he? Huh," replied one burly African American in a Bengals cap, studying Hackett's flyer. Others thanked him profusely for his service. Some were turned off by Hackett's Bush-bashing. But part of his appeal, one suspects, was that he never backed away from it. During a lull in his handshaking, Hackett stood under the blazing sun with his hands on his hips, looking gallant in gold- rimmed Ray-Bans. "That one guy, he came up to me and told me, 'I didn't like the way you called the president a chicken hawk. You can't say that.' I said, 'The hell I can't!' I asked him, 'Did you serve?' He says, 'No.' Figures. That's who I get that the most from, the guys who didn't serve."

This sort of thing made Hackett a rock star in the world of liberal blogs--a figure who combined the defiant rhetoric of Howard Dean with the military credentials of Max Cleland. Schmidt's campaign sniffed at Hackett's Web following. ("The second congressional district doesn't fully involve themselves in the blogosphere," a spokeswoman told me at Schmidt headquarters, as Rush Limbaugh trashed Hackett on a radio playing in the background.) But one need only look at the astounding numbers. Whereas the dccc spent $200,000 on ads for Hackett, the campaign raised more than twice that much from online contributions. Most of that was thanks to the intense advocacy of a handful of liberal bloggers, several of whom traveled to southern Ohio from around the country and became a sort of informal arm of the campaign.

On Election Day, the bloggers' "war room" consisted of a dark corner of the Goldminers Inn, a dank dive bar in Batavia, Ohio, where four twentysomethings quaffed cans of Miller Lite and ruminated about their growing role in Democratic politics. The leader of the group was Bob Brigham, who blogs for a site called Swing State Project. After raising a six-figure sum for Hackett, Brigham had flown in from San Fancisco and "embedded" himself in the campaign, riding in Hackett's small convoy from event to event in baggy blue jeans and faded red canvas sneakers. "We're three times as relevant as the dccc. And you can quote that!" he told me between sips of beer. "It's a sea change in Democratic politics. I see Al From and I see a hearse. This is the future. We're way ahead of the curve." Brigham proceeded to tell a strange tale, wherein Donnie Fowler, a onetime candidate for chairman of the Democratic National Committee, allegedly threw a punch at him. Did it land? "Hell, no! I'm virtual!" The spirit of the Dean campaign was alive and well.

Whether this spirit means a 2006 Democratic sweep is another matter. While the bloggers who sustained Hackett are certainly around for the long haul, the midsummer timing of the race allowed liberals to focus on Hackett's campaign with an intensity that won't be possible when dozens of other races are competing for attention in the November 2006 midterms. And, while Democrats are trying to scare up more Iraq veterans to run next year, the list is likely to be a short one.

WHICH MAY NOT be all bad. It's not easy running political neophytes for office, as the Hackett experience suggests. For all his seemingly ideal qualities, Hackett chafed at essential parts of the campaign process. The marriage between Hackett and his broader fan base, for instance, sometimes seemed an uneasy one. On the Monday before the election, Brigham convinced Hackett to make a guest appearance on the militantly liberal website Daily Kos. The candidate sat with him in a darkened restaurant, squinting quizzically at Brigham's laptop. At one point, after Brigham relayed some slangy reader commentary, Hackett turned to him and deadpanned, military style: "Translate." It seemed that some of Daily Kos's more paranoid readers wanted proof that it was really Hackett posting. Hackett rolled his eyes. "What do they want, my Social Security number?" Then he dictated to Brigham at the keyboard: "It's me. Quit being a typical Democrat and get off my ass." Inevitably, someone took offense: "If exercizing [sic] critical thinking skills and healthy skepticism makes me a 'typical Democrat,' I'm proud to be one," harrumphed one reader.

Nor did Hackett seem to enjoy the onrush of national press as much as some career politicians might. At one point, when he turned from a conversation to find two reporters taking notes a couple of feet away, he said, only half- jokingly, "Don't you guys ever go away?" By Election Day, the half-joking part was gone. On Tuesday afternoon, he sat in a stairwell, his shirt soaked from 95- degree heat, talking to a CNN Radio reporter on his cell phone. "What, specifically, would you like to know? That covers a lot of topics," Hackett snapped in response to some unknown question. When the connection grew garbled, Hackett shouted into the phone--"Hello? Hello? Hello!"—then hung up in disgust before stalking past a mortified press aide to his car and driving away.

In the end, some people around Hackett wondered if all the attention-- stories on ABC, NBC, Fox, CNN, the Times, The Washington Post, not to mention all the blog mania--wasn't spooking him. In the last two days of the election, Hackett skipped several opportunities to battle for a few last votes. Instead of nonstop stumping on Election Day, he took an unscheduled rest at home. And, the night before the election, as Schmidt raced around to diners and IHOPS, Hackett took in a Bruce Springsteen concert. What gave? "I expected that everyone would get excited and charged up about an Iraqi war vet," he told me just after delivering his concession speech. "I was a little surprised by the volume [of attention], particularly in the last week or so."

At his after-party on Tuesday night, Hackett's supporters were already looking ahead to next year, when Schmidt's new seat will be up again, and chanting, "'06! '06!" Hackett sounded open to it. And, if he runs, he may prevail. But that doesn't mean the Democrats will.