Campaigning From a Combat Zone

While California Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, is navigating the campaign trail in his long-shot bid for the White House, his son, Marine Capt. Duncan D. Hunter, is running to replace him in Congress with help from his dad's Beltway buddies. The younger Hunter, or Junior, as he is called by some friends and family, is waging this political struggle while serving his country 8,000 miles away in Afghanistan (he has also served in Iraq).

Because of strict Department of Defense rules, the Marine reservist can't officially campaign until he returns home next month. He can't even blog or write anything on his Web site. Yet the 30-year-old would-be congressman has still managed to raise $170,000, which his staff says is more money than any other Republican hopeful in the race for California's 52nd Congressional District seat. (Hunter faces several other GOP challengers who are well-known locally.) The GOP primary is scheduled for June in the district, which has about 151,000 registered Republicans and 100,000 registered Democrats.

The younger Hunter's Web site boasts that nearly 70 current House members have already endorsed his candidacy and that his campaign received more than $15,000 from current members and their political action committees during the third quarter of this year. One contributor: former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who now works as a business consultant in Maryland. According to campaign disclosure forms, on Sept. 30 Rumsfeld gave the maximum $2,300 contribution to Hunter, whose father was one of the few pols to publicly lament Rumsfeld's resignation last year.

Hunter's conservative platform—strong defense, border protection, low taxes—mimics the positions his father has stood for as a member of the House for the past 27 years. (The elder Hunter decided not to run for re-election when he mounted his presidential bid.) The younger Hunter was a recent college graduate on a business track when America was attacked on Sept. 11, 2001. He joined the Marines a day later and has since developed political ambitions, says David Gilliard, a veteran California political consultant who is managing Hunter's campaign. "He wants to be a voice for the troops."

Hunter completed his active service in September 2005 but was sent to Afghanistan as a reservist earlier this year; he will return home next month. A Marine spokesman said Hunter received permission to enter the race, though he's barred from even talking about the campaign to Gilliard and others until he sheds his uniform. "We've had three other Marines in the same position in the last year, all running for elected office," said Marine spokesman Maj. Eric Dent. "As the DoD directive states, he cannot direct his campaign in any way."

Gilliard said he has not communicated with Hunter at all since Junior formally launched his campaign, shortly after redeploying to Afghanistan in May. In Hunter's absence his wife Margaret has spoken at campaign functions and given interviews on talk radio. The Hunters have three young children at home. "He's looking forward to the time when he can communicate his beliefs and share his positions," says Gilliard. He said Hunter should be free and clear of all DoD restrictions by January. (At that point he will have completed three tours of duty, which makes it unlikely—though not impossible—that he will be called up again.)

Political analysts say Hunter Jr.'s current role as a Marine puts him in an enviable political position. "Who's going to throw mud at someone who's in a foxhole?" asks Carl Luna, a political science professor at San Diego Mesa College and longtime observer of California politics.

But Hunter isn't the only warrior in the race. Mike Lumpkin, a recently retired Navy SEAL commander, is one of Hunter's opponents on the Democratic side. "I have great respect for his service to his country, but if his name wasn't Duncan Hunter you wouldn't be writing this story," says Lumpkin, who has a master's degree in national security. "People are rallying around this young man, but the truth is no one really knows him."