It doesn't take long for war stories to emerge when congressional candidates Ashwin Madia and Steve Sarvi hit the campaign trail.

Both are Iraq veterans running as DFLers. The battle for hearts and minds now takes Madia to the western suburbs of Hennepin County, where he is running for the Third District seat left open by retiring Republican Jim Ramstad. It takes Sarvi to the southeastern suburbs and farmland of the Second District, where Sarvi is challenging Republican incumbent John Kline.

They join a nationwide redeployment of at least a dozen other Iraq or Afghanistan veterans running for Congress in 2008. Most of the veteran candidates are Democrats. Many, like Sarvi and Madia, are running for a major elected office for the first time.

With war weariness much on voters' minds, the vets' march on Washington looks like a winning strategy to some.

"Vets like Sarvi and Madia have just come back recently," said James Bootz, chairman of the DFL veterans' caucus.

"They've got firsthand experience and still have connections to people who are over there," Bootz added. "It's a big advantage just having them in the race."

Yet if recent history is any gauge, vet status is no guarantee of victory. In 2006, Democrats heavily recruited veterans, and most of those who became known as the "Fighting Dems" went down to defeat. A lack of campaign experience was widely blamed.

One of the successful exceptions was DFLer Tim Walz, a retired command sergeant major with the Minnesota National Guard, who defeated Republican Gil Gutknecht in the First Congressional District. Walz served in Italy with his battalion in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

One sign of the complexities facing veteran candidates is that both Sarvi and Madia find their nuanced views on Iraq are often a hard-sell to ravenous DFL delegates eager for a quick and complete pullout.

Both Sarvi and Madia advocate pulling most troops out of Iraq but say an immediate withdrawal would be unwise. Madia advocates a force of American troops, with assistance from a multinational force, to protect workers and diplomats who remain and to prevent ethnic cleansing. Sarvi advocates tying military funding to a concrete exit plan from the Pentagon and says the Bush administration's focus on Iraq (with Kline's support) has hurt U.S. foreign policy elsewhere. He adds that human rights violations against detainees in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib prison have compromised American values.

Redefining 'patriotism'

There are two other announced DFL candidates in the Third District race with Madia: state Sen. Terri Bonoff and Edina Mayor Jim Hovland. They are competing to secure the party's endorsement before they can move to the general election.

Huddled in a corner at a recent state Senate district holiday gathering in Eden Prairie, Madia, a lawyer who left his firm to run, talked to several party-goers about Iraq. A Marine captain, Madia worked with Iraqi lawyers and judges while deployed.

Phil Gulstad said he came away a potential convert, even though he was originally one of those advocating for a more dramatic pullout.

"I'm quite comfortable with his explanation," Gulstad admitted. "I like the fact that he doesn't claim to be a war hero. I didn't come through the door feeling this way but right now I'm leaning in his direction."

Earlier, at a fundraiser in St. Paul hosted by a former law school classmate, Madia began his pitch, as he always does, by talking about Iraq. "We've had one party take the word 'patriotism' and define it as a certain meaning," Madia told the group. "Is it patriotic to believe in the Constitution? Is it patriotic to believe in the rule of law?"

Both Bonoff and Hovland said Madia's service to his country does not change their campaign strategies or their positions on Iraq. Bonoff, whose election to the state Senate in a special election in 2005 sparked a DFL mini-revolution in the district, does acknowledge that Madia's military experience has forced her to beef up on foreign policy.

"Because of Ashwin's background, there has been more emphasis on the campaign trail on Iraq policy. I'm very well-versed now, not just on Iraq but the rest of the Middle East," she said.

Countering Kline's advantage

As with Madia, Sarvi's military service is often the first thing he mentions while talking to small groups and fundraisers that make up the early part of the campaign season.

An infantry platoon first sergeant with the Minnesota National Guard, Sarvi, who is also Victoria's city administrator, was deployed to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport after the Sept. 11. 2001, terrorist attacks. He was part of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Kosovo and this summer completed a 22-month deployment that included 16 months in Iraq. While there, he worked with sheiks and tribal leaders on rebuilding projects in southern Iraq.

At a recent holiday meeting in the home of Victoria Council Member Rick Tieden, Sarvi talked about face-to-face meetings with local Iraqi leaders and their suspicions about American motives for being in Iraq. They told him they were sure the U.S. military would be there "until the last drop of oil is taken."

"They told me, 'We don't want Al-Qaida to be here. We don't want the U.S. Army to be in control. We don't want Iranian influence. We want you all to get out of here,'" Sarvi told the group. "And we should respect that wish."

Kline has been a strong advocate of current U.S. policy in Iraq and has said a rapid withdrawal could cause Iraqi security forces to collapse, allowing neighboring countries to intervene and increasing the potential for Al-Qaida to plan and train for more attacks.

Kline's office declined to discuss Sarvi's candidacy or the impact of his military experience on the campaign. As a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and the only active-duty career Marine Corps veteran serving in Congress, Kline's military background has often proved to be a difficult obstacle for DFL opponents when trying to speak with authority about military issues.

Sarvi campaign manager Eileen Weber said Sarvi's service will effectively neutralize Kline's military stature.

"If there is a picture of John Kline standing with a soldier who won a Bronze Star, well, we have our own candidate who has his own Bronze Star," she said.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636