Newtown, PA (CNN) - They enlisted in the military, served in the recent war in Iraq and successfully ran for public office. Now they are fighting for their political lives.
Of the handful of members of Congress who saw combat in Iraq, toppling Saddam Hussein or helping maintain the peace in the war's aftermath, two veterans are locked in tough re-election campaigns: Democratic Reps Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania and John Boccieri of Ohio.
Both men won their first elections – Murphy in 2006 and Boccieri in 2008 – by touting their experiences as military veterans while challenging George W Bush's handling of the war and economic stewardship.
This time around, the economy is the major concern on the voters' minds and foreign policy is a mere afterthought. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll shows that 56% of respondents said the economy is an extremely important issue in this election, while only 32% felt that way about Iraq.
Despite the shift in public interest away from foreign affairs, Murphy still weaves his military record into his talking points.
"I'm going to fight for our seniors. I'm going to fight for my fellow veterans. And I'm sure as hell going to fight for the middle class families that I represent," Murphy told CNN, trying to spread his populist economic message among a diverse constituency.
Murphy, a former constitutional law professor at West Point and a paratrooper during the last Iraq war, repeatedly talks about the need to improve the economy and create jobs associated with new environmentally cleaner technologies, even though he has also made the military a central focus during his House tenure by championing the repeal of the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" law that bans gays and lesbians from openly serving openly in the armed services.
"I've been focused on trying to grow the economy since day one," said Murphy. "But I also take an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. It's the oath I took as an army officer; it's the same oath I take as a Congressman. And that oath says we're all created equally."
Murphy's opponent, like all Republican challengers this year, is focusing on family finances.
"The economy was much different," says Mike Fitzpatrick, speaking of the political environment back in 2006 when he was an incumbent Congressman and lost to Murphy by 1,518 votes. Now in 2010, he is forcing a rematch.
"People are talking about economic issues. So as much as issues in 2006 were about foreign policy, this year it is about too much government in our lives with a high national debt and high unemployment," said Fitzpatrick.
Boccieri is fighting similar political headwinds in his Canton, Ohio district. The former aircraft commander was deployed in four rotations to Iraq and Afghanistan, but now faces Republican candidate Jim Renacci – a small businessman who takes credit for creating 1,500 jobs and employing more than 3,000 individuals.
Of the 92 military veterans currently serving in the House, only four served during the Iraq war, including Republicans Mike Coffman of Colorado and Duncan Hunter Jr. of California. They are expected to easily win re-election in November.
And while the national mood has shifted, Americans have a long history of electing military veterans to federal office, starting with George Washington. Many cite the appeal of individuals with strong leadership abilities, tenacity and decisiveness.
"Foreign policy is not all they bring to the table," says Seth Lynn of the non-partisan Veterans Campaign organization, which is dedicated to helping elect former members of the military. "The benefit to the voters is that if these guys are willing to risk their lives overseas, they can be trusted in Washington."
Lynn also has advice for the more than 300 veterans who he says are running for Congress this year: be selfless.
"Don't make your campaign about you. Make it about the voters and how you will change Washington," he says. "If you are willing to risk your life, you are generally willing to risk political capital to do what is right for the U.S. and transcend the partisanship."