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updated: 10/28/2012 6:44 AM

8th incumbent Walsh sees himself as 'average Joe'

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By Kerry Lester
Politics and Projects Writer
klester@dailyherald.com

In his two years in office, Republican Congressman Joe Walsh has never shied away from the spotlight.

Calling himself the "most accessible congressman on the planet," he has returned to the 8th Congressional District week after week to host town hall meetings with constituents, where Democratic trackers and scouts from liberal SuperPACs have for months recorded his every word in case the McHenry Tea Partyer says something politically risky.

Which he inevitably does, to the satisfaction of backers who find his bluntness refreshing.

Over the summer, Walsh found himself in the middle of a media firestorm for suggesting his Democratic opponent, Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, boasted about her war record on the campaign trail too much. "My God, that's all she talks about," Walsh said in July of the double-amputee Iraq War veteran.

Walsh called President Barack Obama "son" at a picnic in July, and, a few days later, suggested radical Islam is a threat in suburbs including Elgin, Addison and Elk Grove Village.

Walsh, of McHenry, doesn't apologize for those comments. In saying that he is different from "poll-tested" politicians who carefully craft every word they say, he has created a wag-the-dog situation, with the media watching and reporting on his every move. In the last two years since his defeat of three-term Democratic incumbent Melissa Bean of Barrington by 290 votes, his national name recognition has skyrocketed.

He's counting on that to help him in the 8th District, which contains large swaths of Democratic-leaning voters in Cook, Kane and DuPage counties. This is a district, Walsh charges, that was drawn specifically for Duckworth -- a former Obama administration member -- by Democratic cartographers.

"He's fighting the entire Democratic establishment," Illinois GOP Chair Pat Brady, of St. Charles, quipped about Walsh.

While Walsh's comments are effective at firing up his base, they often allow his opponents to paint him as extreme, making the "undecided voter" in the 8th District a rare breed. Nowhere, perhaps, was that more evident than the Oct. 9 debate at the Meadows Club in Rolling Meadows, where a raucous crowd of roughly 1,000 booed and cheered as he and Duckworth made remarks.

While Duckworth has made reaching out to small focus groups of Latino leaders, women's groups and suburban officials a hallmark of her campaign, Walsh has taken town halls to another level, often with a loyal throng of supporters present.

At these events, the former government teacher often paces the floor and gesticulates enthusiastically, reminding his audience that any opinion can be raised, but it must be done respectfully.

Walsh has challenged Duckworth to debate him in public every month -- an invitation she has declined, participating in four joint appearances.

At an event Tuesday at the National Indian American Public Policy Institute in Schaumburg that Duckworth declined, Walsh apologized to the group, saying he would have "loved to debate."

"Don't reward candidates who don't have the decency to get in front of you and ask you for your vote," he urged.

The 8th District, stretching from Barrington Hills to Villa Park, was dubbed by Democratic primary candidate Raja Krishnamoorthi as "perhaps the most Asian district in the Midwest."

According to 2012 census figures, 12 percent of the district's residents are of Asian descent. And while Duckworth has reached out to suburban Muslims unhappy with Walsh's "radical Islam" comments, Walsh has effectively courted the suburban Hindu community, with an Indian American SuperPAC, Indian Americans for Freedom, recently spending $70,000 to support his campaign.

Walsh, in recent months, has written two letters to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking for Narendra Modi, chief minister of the state of Gujarat in India, to be granted a diplomatic visa, work that he received applause for at the NIAPP event.

Walsh campaigns as an "average Joe," driven to make a run for Congress after he sensed a "revolution" spreading across the country.

He says his own financial troubles -- past tax liens, a recently resolved child support suit with his ex-wife and another with a former campaign manager, and a home foreclosure -- connect him to the struggles of many in the district he represents.

The McHenry Tea Partyer says government should protect citizens' rights and then back off. He is pro-gun, anti-abortion, opposes health care reform legislation, and, in his numerous votes against raising the debt ceiling, has pledged "not to put another dollar of debt on the backs of our kids and our grandkids."

While his own fundraising has trailed Duckworth in each quarter of the election cycle thus far, the influx of SuperPAC money -- primarily supporting Walsh and opposing Duckworth -- has helped flood local television stations and suburban mailboxes with pro-Walsh messages.

His own research, Walsh says, has changed his mind on social issues since his 1996 campaign against 13-term 9th District Democratic incumbent Sidney Yates. In that unsuccessful run, as well as in his 1998 bid for Illinois House, Walsh presented himself as supporting abortion rights, gun control and gay rights and against prayer in public schools.

Walsh said he arrived at his "pro-life without exception" stance -- even in the cases of rape or incest or to save the life of the mother -- after years of thought and research.

Last week, after making headlines for suggesting that medical advancements made abortions to save a mother's life medically unnecessary, Walsh vowed to spend the rest of the time before the election talking about the economy, including the "empty warehouses and factories littered across the district."

That's an issue, as Walsh well knows, that resonates with many in the suburbs, as does his candor.

"He admits he's made mistakes," Brady, of St. Charles, said. "But the passion and commitment and work ethic he brings ... those three things to me are invaluable."

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