In a second-floor office above an Italian restaurant in downtown Elgin, Tammy Duckworth sits surrounded by two dozen Latino leaders on a recent weekday.
Flanked by California Democratic Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and state Sen. Iris Martinez of Chicago, she is in her element.
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Duckworth, the 8th Congressional District's Democratic candidate from Hoffman Estates, laughs and casually interjects herself into the round-table discussion about immigration, women's issues and voter I.D. laws.
From her seat at the table, her wheelchair blends in seamlessly. That literal "spine of steel" that top Democratic strategist David Axelrod proudly described at a 2011 Duckworth fundraiser is out of view.
Duckworth, 44, a nationally known double-amputee Iraq War veteran, has spent the last seven months emphasizing the personal story that complements her war record.
As the conversation turns to the hardships some Latino families face in coming to the U.S., Duckworth describes her own family's struggles emigrating from Thailand, when her mother, despite being married to an American citizen and having two American children, was separated from the family for several months as she got documents in order.
"Even though my background is Asian-American, I have similar stories. I get it," she said, nodding as she looks around the table. "My family was split up."
While Duckworth's carefully crafted campaign strategy does not play down her heroism, it plays up her humanity as she faces a charismatic Republican Tea Partyer who has painted himself as an "average Joe" complete with financial struggles and a colloquial style some constituents find refreshing.
U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, of McHenry, has criticized his opponent for talking too much about her military record, a point that landed him on front pages across the country.
"My God, that's all she talks about," Walsh remarked in July. He has since commended Duckworth's heroism, but has not backed away from his statements.
After a rocket-propelled grenade hit the helicopter she was flying in 2004, Duckworth, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, spent more than a year in the hospital, almost immediately after which she announced her first bid for Congress against Republican Peter Roskam of Wheaton.
That bitter, costly race was among the most-watched in the country, and she lost by 2 percentage points.
Six years later, she is running in a district drawn specifically to a Democrat's advantage. She describes herself as "wisened" by experiences -- running the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs and serving in the Obama administration for two years before announcing her congressional bid in June 2011.
This time around, Duckworth maintains that she is running an issues-based campaign, with community meetings with mayors, local business leaders and constituency groups like the one in Elgin a hallmark of her campaign.
Duckworth describes the district, roughly centered in Elgin and stretching from Barrington Hills in the northwest to Villa Park in the southeast, as one that's in the "messy middle." She says she will advocate for her constituents' needs above her own political allegiances and refutes Walsh's claims that she will be a Democratic lap dog beholden to President Barack Obama.
Duckworth is in favor of Obama's health care legislation, but has expressed concern that it unfairly burdens small businesses like restaurants with high numbers of employees. While she describes Medicare as a "promise," she says she would cut costs by allowing the program to negotiate for cheaper prescription drug prices and cracking down on Medicare fraud -- an approach, she notes, that Roskam also supports.
She advocates for the Bush-era tax cuts to expire for the wealthiest Americans, but sets the threshold at $1 million -- far above Obama's stated $250,000.
She favors immigration reform, but says there should be a tough path to citizenship.
"Immigration reform has to be practical, and it has to be fair," Duckworth said. "You have to pay a fine, but one you can afford. Something that is logical. I think you also need to learn a little bit of English."
Despite her pledge to campaign on issues, Duckworth has not stayed entirely away from defense or negativity, launching a recent ad that refers to Walsh as a "deadbeat dad," a label he rejects.
Following a Bloomingdale news conference about transportation issues with local mayors, Duckworth and her campaign approached reporters in attendance with handouts alleging that Walsh has ties to a SuperPAC that is pouring millions into the Chicago media market on ads and mailers working for his re-election. Walsh said that connection ended a decade ago.
Duckworth also carries some political baggage of her own, baggage that Walsh has seized upon. Duckworth faces a 2009 lawsuit alleging that as head of the Illinois Veterans Affairs, she was involved in the wrongful termination of an employee and the demotion of a whistle-blower.
In August, the Daily Herald reported that Duckworth had been improperly claiming primary homeowner exemptions on two different properties for several years in a row. After being questioned about the mistake, she wrote a check to the DeKalb County assessor for the $2,500 owed.
In a district drawn for a Democrat, her campaign is not treating the race as a slam dunk, especially with millions in SuperPAC money pouring in to help Walsh's quest. In turn, analysts have changed their predictions, from saying the race is a sure Democratic win to calling it likely. It's crunchtime, and the community meetings like this one in Elgin, her campaign hopes, will make the difference come Election Day.
With the allegiance of the Latino leaders at the table clear, Congresswoman Sanchez asks them to carry Duckworth's message to others in the 8th District.
"We're here to help you, give you the information you need to give to help Tammy across the line in a very tight race," Sanchez said.