Could this be -- hang on -- an election fight for the soul of the Democratic Party, a spirited thrust by the antiwar movement into the backyard of Southern California's defense industry to define just what shade of blue is blue enough these days in confronting the prolonged conflict of Iraq?
Or is it merely a distraction while Democrats here and across America await the November elections to see if they can capitalize on voter discontent and reclaim Congress?
In beach communities between Venice and San Pedro, a Democratic congressional primary has residents wondering: Has a sleeper race emerged right in front of them? Or are they witnessing only boisterous daydreaming by those who have polished up their peace symbols and want to move from street protest to the floor of Congress?
Democratic Party voters who live along this strip of the coast will settle things June 6, choosing between veteran congressional powerhouse Rep. Jane Harman of Venice and upstart English teacher Marcy Winograd, who moved into a Marina del Rey apartment from her home in Pacific Palisades to be a resident of the district for the election.
The 36th Congressional District is so solidly Democratic that the GOP hardly pays it any mind. Two years ago the district went 59% to 40% for John Kerry over George Bush. Jane Harman supported Kerry; Marcy Winograd was a volunteer activist who worked to get out the Kerry vote.
Then, you'll remember, Democrats nationwide lapsed into a loser's funk, wondering where to go next.
Winograd sided with those who called for a left turn to the party's supposed roots. Harman assumed what she said was the pragmatist's role in opposition to Republican control of Washington. Since then, the intraparty quarrel has receded from headlines. Bush's declining popularity provided a unity blanket for Democrats, who answered their own question about where to go by going after him.
But that didn't settle things here, not in this crazy-quilt congressional district that takes in a chunk of Los Angeles' liberal Westside, Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach as well as working-class San Pedro and, in between, the aerospace and defense belt of Torrance and part of Carson.
Winograd, a onetime "L.A. Democrat of the year," the president of the Progressive Democrats of Los Angeles and the daughter of lifelong peace activists, embraced the antiwar cause. In turn, the cause embraced her.
If she has her way, the upcoming vote will be a referendum on the war in Iraq and whether to pull out now.
Nonsense, says Harman, who has become a high-profile spokeswoman for House Democrats on national security matters by virtue of being the ranking minority member of the House Intelligence Committee. It's a race about experience, not protest.
Idealism versus realism? In the argument about the meaning of being a Democrat in 2006, nothing is so charged as one's choice of words and language. Both of these candidates are "progressives," as they describe themselves. Both agree on equal rights for gays and lesbians, both support abortion rights, both emphasize environmental protection. Indeed, both pretty much agree on what's important in this primary, wherein the victor becomes the odds-on favorite in the November finale.
They part, however, on the essential question of how Democrats should confront U.S. engagement in Iraq.
Winograd: "My exit strategy is this: We announce a pull-out. Starting tomorrow. Region by region ... then we support reconstruction."
Harman: "I don't know a living Democrat anywhere who supports the president when he says, 'Stay the course.' " But, she adds, "despite colossal postwar planning failures, we have a moral obligation to leave the country in better shape than we found it, with a stable government and adequately trained security forces."
Winograd says she will refuse campaign contributions from the district's defense and aerospace industry except from companies engaged in "peace or alternative energy conversion," perhaps a symbolic stance since she could expect to receive few anyway.
Harman shakes her head. The industry, she says, "is important to our district and to our national security."
Winograd is harshly critical of the administration's domestic surveillance efforts. She needles Harman relentlessly for not being quicker and more emphatic in standing up to the administration, particularly given that the incumbent is one of the few members of Congress briefed on the government's controversial actions.
Harman supported the basic intent of the administration's surveillance -- to track calls between U.S. phones and Al Qaeda suspects abroad. She also deplored leaks that brought the issue to public attention. But she said her support never included wiretaps without court approval.
More recently, as further leaks pointed to much broader mining of everyday telephone records, Harman denounced "a lawless White House, out of control."
In sum, Winograd casts her opponent as a Bush Democrat who was too slow to challenge the president on the war, one who moved left only when challenged in the campaign. Winograd could only have been delighted when restless House liberals complained of the same thing in the early jockeying for position in next year's Congress, lobbying to have Harman replaced as the party's voice on the Intelligence Committee.
Harman, who has represented the district for six terms -- interrupted once by an unsuccessful campaign for governor -- portrays herself as a seasoned leader in the realpolitik of polarized Washington. As reported in The Times last week, she asked to remain on the committee and in line to be its chairwoman should Democrats gain a majority.
"Leadership is not about pointing fingers," says Harman, a lawyer by profession -- and once a nonresident who moved to the district to run, "it's about solving problems."
"Let's put it this way," says Winograd, who has taught middle and high school and has been a curriculum coach and, before that, a radio news reporter, "it's time to build an opposition party."
There is no GOP primary and little party interest in the district. The GOP candidate in the general election, Brian Gibson, retired early from his job as a Boeing satellite engineer with an eye toward challenging Harman. So far, his candidacy consists of just himself and his home telephone.
Gibson acknowledges that the district, once considered a partisan battleground, was redrawn after the 2000 census to overwhelmingly favor Democrats.
"The question that interests me," he says, "is whether Winograd voters will be so upset if they lose that they'll sit on their hands in November."
One shorthand way to grasp the campaign is to look down each candidate's list of supporters.
Harman is endorsed by California's two U.S. Senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, 29 members of the Congressional delegation, three county supervisors and the Sierra Club, among others. Winograd is backed by some of the leading lights of the peace movement, including vocal activist Cindy Sheehan, who lost a son in Iraq, along with Tom Hayden, novelist Gore Vidal, entertainer Ed Asner, Texas activist Jim Hightower, United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, and others.
As seen from the outside by political analysts not aligned with the candidates: Harman, although sometimes imperious, has too much standing and is too important to the economy of the district to worry about being turned out. At the same time, Winograd has made it interesting.
Primary elections like this carry a degree of uncertainty. In a nonpresidential year when up-ticket candidates aren't generating much passion, turnout tends to be low. Outcomes can be determined by small numbers of motivated voters.
Harman is not alone among prominent Democrats being tested by the antiwar movement. Notably, Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Connecticut) faces an August primary challenge from Ned Lamont, a Fairfield County entrepreneur and critic of the war.
In the coastal cities during the closing stretch of the campaign, Winograd walks the district door-to-door with the bubbling enthusiasm of a first-time candidate who is just sure she's going to leave establishment heads spinning.
"We have a message that will reverberate across the country and the world," she says. "What is that message? Peace is possible."
So far, Harman has maintained cautious distance from the fray, devoting herself to her House duties at a time when intelligence issues -- and the politics of committee assignments -- burn red-hot in Washington. "I was elected to serve in the House of Representatives," she says. But she and her campaign staff say she is ready to step on the gas at home, if necessary.
Meanwhile, she says, with a tinge of exasperation, "I strongly disagree with the idea that this is a fight for the soul of the party. The Democratic Party's soul is intact."