JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—His campaign fliers declare him "A Soldier's Congressman." His TV ads feature testimonials from the mother of a Marine. And he accuses his Republican opponent of not supporting the troops.
U.S. Rep. Ike Skelton, the rural Missouri chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is waging a military campaign to retain his congressional seat in the face of his most formidable opposition in more than a decade.
It might seem an odd tactic for this November's elections, considering most candidates across the country are focused on domestic issues such as the weak economy, federal spending or health care.
But for embattled Democrats in conservative districts, the strong military theme has emerged as a way to keep the political battle on their home turf -- about issues on which they have expertise -- and away from the broader approval or disapproval of President Barack Obama and the Democratic-led Congress.
It's also a way to appeal to Republican-leaning voters vital to their re-election chances.
Sharon Oetting, for example, backed Republican Sen. John McCain in the past presidential election. And she twice voted for President George W. Bush. But when Skelton's campaign came calling, she agreed to appear in his TV ad this year.
Talking from her kitchen table, Oetting tells TV viewers that Skelton ensured her son was safely equipped when he was deployed to places such as Fallujah, Baghdad and Kandahar. "Military families know: we need to keep Ike Skelton in Congress," she says in the ad.
It's a message that she says transcends partisanship.
"He's very strong in the military, and that's exactly what this district is -- we're very agriculture and we're very military," Oetting, a farmer from near Concordia, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Skelton's campaign claims he has helped secure about $600 million of projects in the past five years alone for Whiteman Air Force Base, Fort Leonard Wood and the Missouri National Guard -- all of which are based in his district.
Democratic Rep. Chet Edwards, a 20-year incumbent who is chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for military construction and veteran affairs, has taken a similar tactic. Edwards recently completed a five-day, 18-stop "Vets for Chet" tour that highlighted endorsements from three retired Army generals.
In the Florida Panhandle, Democratic Rep. Allen Boyd -- a member of the House defense appropriations subcommittee -- has run ads touting his efforts to win better benefits for the troops. He also touts his role in bringing more fighter jets to Tyndall Air Force Base.
South Carolina Rep. John Spratt, who is the second-ranking member of the Armed Services Committee, declares on his campaign website that he is an "ardent defender of our nation's veterans."
Spratt, Skelton, Edwards and Boyd share at least three things in common. They represent districts that include or are near major military installations. They face Republican opponents who have sought to link them to President Barack Obama and the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. And they are among 49 House Democrats elected in 2008 by voters who picked McCain over Obama in the presidential race. That means they must again appeal to likely Republican voters if they hope to win in 2010.
Skelton, 78, who first won election in 1976, is being challenged by Republican Vicky Hartzler, a former state lawmaker who served as spokeswoman for Missouri's 2004 initiative banning gay marriage and who has the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Because Hartzler drained most of her money in the Aug. 3 Republican primary, Skelton was able to tap his nearly $2 million campaign account to air six weeks of unrebutted ads highlighting his support for the military and questioning Hartzler's.
It makes economic sense for Skelton to emphasize the military. Whiteman employed 8,353 people and had an estimated $621 million economic impact on the area, according to a 2009 report from the base. A spokeswoman for Fort Leonard Wood said it averages 33,000 military and civilians on post daily with an annual economic impact of $2.1 billion.
Skelton and Boyd both represent districts where the population of military veterans is more than one-third greater than the national average.
"Everybody cares for their troops," Skelton said recently while explaining his pro-military campaign. "...Neighbors and family are downright proud of them. I'm proud of them."
Contrary to the assertions in Skelton's ads, Hartzler says she would be "a very strong advocate of the military." But that's not the focus of her campaign.
"It's what he's going to want to focus on because he doesn't want to have to answer the questions about the economy and about his bad voting record 95 percent of the time with Nancy Pelosi," Hartzler said in a recent interview.
Like many Republicans from conservative districts, Hartzler has tried to tie Skelton to a liberal Democratic agenda. Skelton joined most Democrats in backing the $814 billion stimulus plan and also voted last year for climate-control legislation.
Skelton's stimulus vote was too much for Jim Lambirth, a Jefferson City plumber and tea party activist who says he will no longer support Skelton. "He's been a blue dog (Democrat)," said Lambirth. "But this year, he hasn't been quite so much."
Skelton has simply hammered away on his support for the armed services.
"That's been his message every two years said Shari Garber Bax, a political science professor at the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. "It's just that we're hearing it more now because the competition is so tough."