WASHINGTON -- While fighting in Iraq, a private asked Captain Patrick Murphy why US forces were in the Persian Gulf nation, and was told it didn't matter; there was a job to do and just try to return home safely.
''That wasn't the time to question our government," Murphy recalled.
Now, however, Murphy and five other veterans of the war are asking questions about President Bush's policies in Iraq as part of their broader Democratic campaigns to win congressional seats in next year's elections.
Given their experience in Iraq, the six Democrats -- in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia -- say they are eminently qualified to pose the tough questions. Their reservations mirror public opinion, with an increasing number of Americans expressing concern about the mission and favoring a timetable for withdrawing US troops.
The most recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll indicated that only 37 percent of Americans approve of Bush's handling of Iraq, with 62 percent disapproving.
This summer, Paul Hackett, a Democrat and an Iraq war veteran, nearly defeated Jean Schmidt, a Republican, in a special election in an Ohio district considered a GOP stronghold.
On Monday, with support from Senator Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat who is the minority leader, Hackett decided to seek a higher office: the Senate seat now held by Mike DeWine, a two-term Republican.
''Some guys don't think it's time to question our government, but the fact is I love my country," said Murphy, 31, a lawyer who fought with the 82d Airborne Division. ''We need to have an exit strategy now."
Murphy is challenging Representative Mike Fitzpatrick, a first-term Republican in the northern Philadelphia suburbs of the Eighth District.
Another Iraq war veteran, Van Taylor, a Texas Republican, is also running for a House seat, but he backs Bush.
In 1974, public outrage over the Watergate scandal and President Richard M. Nixon's administration swept a class of Democrats seeking changes into office. It's too soon to measure the effect of the war on the 2006 elections, but the handful of veterans pursuing seats in the House is an early indicator.
The Democratic veterans walk a fine line as they reach out to voters who may question Bush's handling of the conflict. The task is to challenge the administration while still being seen as patriotic.
David Ashe, who spent most of 2003 as a Marine judge advocate general in Iraq, chooses his words when asked whether the United States should have invaded.
There's no reason to ''Monday morning quarterback the decision," said Ashe, 36, who is trying to unseat Representative Thelma Drake, a first-term Republican in Virginia's Second District.