Politics & Government

Hunter runs to shake up governing elite

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — The first siege of Fallujah was under way in Iraq in April 2004 when a furious Marine lieutenant grabbed a satellite phone and shouted a stream of expletives at the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

"Dad, we've already taken four K.I.A.," hollered Lt. Duncan D. Hunter. "But we're sweeping through the city, and we just got orders to stop attacking. What are you guys doing?"

Within minutes, said Rep. Duncan L. Hunter, the lieutenant's father, he was on the phone to the Pentagon, demanding why American troops halfway around the world were pulling back.

More than three years later, the 59-year-old congressman from suburban San Diego is a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. His 30-year-old son, now Capt. Duncan Hunter and deployed with the Marines in Afghanistan, is one of three GOP candidates for the House of Representatives seat that his father has held since 1980.

Their relationship helps explain the elder Hunter's quest for the White House. Duncan L. Hunter, an Army Ranger in Vietnam and the son of a Marine who served in World War II, is running for president as a frustrated patriot who's fed up with Pentagon bureaucracy as "freedom is hanging in the balance" in Iraq.

"He was a grunt in Vietnam, and he has taken that with him," said Gary Jacobson, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. "He is very pro-soldier, not at all pro-brass, and that has served him well with his constituency."

Hunter's anti-brass appeal also extends to the campaign he's waging against the "free traders," who he complains have taken over his Republican Party. He bemoans U.S. factory jobs vanishing and a trade imbalance that he fears threatens American security by financing a Chinese military build-up "with money they're getting from us."

Meanwhile, Hunter publicly chafes over lagging construction of his signature legislative achievement, an 850-mile double fence on the Mexican border that he pushed through Congress to rescue "the thin green line of the U.S. Border Patrol" and fortify a "border out of control."

What drives him emerges from his story of the battlefield call from his son. In an interview, he told how his son's unit advanced on Fallujah after the mutilated bodies of four U.S. contractors were hung from a bridge there. When the Marines' attack was aborted, the congressman said, "he chewed me out and had a few choice words for all politicians in general."

Seven months later, Marines retook Fallujah — by then teeming with Sunni Muslim insurgents — in the most intense combat of the Iraq war. Arguing that the first Fallujah attack was mishandled, Hunter said, "It was a pretty good lesson to him, and to me, about what's going on on the ground and what the bureaucracy is doing in the United States."

So, later, in a hotel ballroom in Reno, Nev., Hunter stood before the Conservative Leadership Conference and vowed to shake up Washington. He pledged to stop unfair trade deals, promote a stout national defense and return the American economy to its industrial roots by restoring manufacturing jobs, which he called "the arsenal of democracy."

He also assailed his party for shunning working-class Americans and enabling China to undercut U.S. products.

"We've got too many Republicans now who feel that the words 'free trade' cover anything and make an excuse and rationale for other people to cheat," Hunter said. "One thing I will do as president is stop China from cheating on trade, bring back high-paying manufacturing jobs and hook this party back up with the middle class and the Reagan Democrats that brought us victory . . . when we knew we were the party of working Americans."

Hunter is a populist conservative who invokes his father, Bob Hunter, "a rock-ribbed Republican" and subdivision builder who refused to buy discounted foreign steel.

But it's hard to tell what Hunter is campaigning harder for, his presidential bid or his son's House race.

Opening his Reno speech, he said, "The first thing I want to say is I'm an unabashed supporter of another guy running for Congress — Duncan Hunter."

His son decided to run for the seat after making presidential speeches for his father following his Iraq tour. Since he was recalled to Afghanistan, he's barred from campaigning while on active duty. So the father passes out the son's brochures, saying: "The Marines are looking for a few good men. He's looking for a few shekels to keep his campaign going."

With a characteristic dig at the political class, he boasts of his son's earlier help in his White House campaign against better-funded GOP candidates.

"Five hundred political consultants on one side. One Marine on the other," he said. "It's a good match."

(Hecht reports for The Sacramento Bee.)

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Duncan Hunter's official campaign site

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