WASHINGTON -- With flags flying and the Capitol as a backdrop, 40 veterans of wars from Vietnam to Iraq vowed yesterday to promote military values within the Democratic Party and promised ''vigorous oversight" of US foreign policy if voters elect them to the US House of Representatives this fall.
In an event reminiscent of the famous ''Contract with America" group portrait of Republicans in 1994, the self-proclaimed ''Fighting Dems" touted their 400 years of collective service to counter the GOP's argument that Democrats are weak on national defense -- and to establish their credibility in attacking President Bush's conduct of the Iraq war.
The 40 are among 53 military veterans who are running as Democrats in congressional races across the country, including two women. Their success could be crucial to Democrats' hopes of gaining the 15 seats they need to retake control of the House from the Republicans.
But the candidates, many of whom are political neophytes, also declared their independence from the national party establishment.
Several candidates complained that they have received only lukewarm support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party's apparatus to recruit and promote promising House candidates. The veterans said the DCCC has embraced only those candidates taking on obviously vulnerable incumbents. They complained that the national party isn't capitalizing on their military credentials.
''We've organized ourselves," said Eric Massa, a Gulf War veteran running in upstate New York. ''There is no national party here today."
The event echoed John F. Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign, in which he touted his military credentials and relied on a ''band of brothers" -- fellow veterans who helped him on the campaign trail. The congressional candidates also referred to themselves as a ''band of brothers" and received a pep talk from former senator Max Cleland of Georgia, a veteran who lost both legs and part of an arm in Vietnam.
Last night, the group planned to hold a fund-raiser in Washington with Kerry and former 2004 presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark, the retired Army general and former NATO commander.
The National Republican Campaign Committee dismissed yesterday's events as theatrics and said they underscored how desperate Democrats are to convince voters they can protect the nation.
NRCC spokesman Ed Patru said that 38 Republican congressional challengers have served in uniform, but ''we don't broadcast that because we don't have a credibility gap in terms of security issues."
Patru said the Democrats ''have a problem on the most important policy of the day. The public just doesn't trust Democrats to keep America safe."
For its part, DCCC officials say the committee wants the best possible candidates to run for the House, and some happen to be military veterans.
''In many cases an Iraq veteran, a Gulf War veteran, a Vietnam veteran are the best candidates," said Sarah Feinberg, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. ''They have a record of experience with military families and veterans."
But she said the national party has to be selective with its money and advertising, especially when Democrats challenge one another.
''The committee's role is to try to elect Democrats to the House, but we do not take sides in primary battles," Feinberg said. She noted that new campaign finance rules restrict the committee from giving more than $5,000 per candidate.
The candidates have the support of at least three organizations to help raise money and build support in congressional districts in which they are running, including Veterans for a Secure America, a political action committee called VETPAC, and the organization Band of Brothers 2006. After speeches and remarks from each candidate, the group spent the afternoon yesterday at a hotel near the Pentagon participating in political seminars and training sessions, including tips on raising money, effective campaigning, and ways to take advantage of the Internet.
''If we get half a dozen elected, it will be a resounding success," said Michael Duga, a Democratic consultant who is helping the veterans.
Before a small crowd that gathered in the early morning chill, the candidates talked of restoring moral values and integrity to the legislative branch, and some said the recent lobbying scandals helped persuade some of them to run for office.
''It's time to clean up this House," said retired Air Force Major Jay Fawcett of Colorado, a House candidate, motioning to the Capitol dome behind him.
They said they intend to strengthen the nation's healthcare and education systems and pledged to work for economic security for all Americans. But nearly all of them said they were motivated by what they consider the Republicans' mishandling of Iraq and the war on terrorism.
''We have served in peace and war and all pledge vigorous oversight so that American forces are never again sent into combat without a clear mission nor proper training and equipment," according to a seven-point pledge they released yesterday. ''We know that national security rests on more than military capability and we pledge to work for defense, homeland security, energy policies, and budgets tailored to meet the threats and address current deficiencies."
Bryan Bender can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org