At a Democratic Party fundraiser hosted by Arianna Huffington in Los Angeles recently, Howard Dean and Barbara Boxer laid out strategy for the upcoming congressional races, with lots of strong talk about retaking the House next fall — and, on Dean’s part, one stunning silence: Iraq.

The occasion was a fundraiser for a Democrat hoping to win a special House election next month in a Republican district in northern San Diego County. The former incumbent, “Duke” Cunningham, dubbed “the poster boy of congressional corruption,” pleaded guilty to several felony counts of bribery and resigned. The special election will be held on April 11, and the Democrats are putting impressive resources into electing Francine Busby, a school board member campaigning as an ethics-in-government candidate. She lost to Cunningham in 2004.

The presence at Arianna’s house of the Democratic national chairman, a senator and three members of Congress underscored the importance Democrats attach to this campaign. Taking over a Republican district in this special election, they argue, would set the tone for the congressional races to come in the fall.

In Arianna’s grand living room, Dean said the Democrats would never win back a majority in Congress by running only on their traditional issues–healthcare, Social Security and education. He said “we need to learn from Karl Rove, and attack our opponents where they are strong”–which means attacking them on defense.

“Here’s our strategy for 2006,” he said. “We need to argue that Bush has failed to get bin Laden; after five years in power, he’s failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; he’s failed to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program; and he’s failed to provide adequate security for our ports. We need to argue that the Democrats will do a better job protecting the nation than Bush has. We promise that we will kill or capture bin Laden; with the help of China and Russia, we will shut down the North Korean nuclear program; we will prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power; and we will protect our ports.”

Notably missing from the list: “we will end the war in Iraq.”

Boxer took a different tack. The Democrat who won more votes in 2004 than any other candidate in the nation except for Bush and Kerry, who won more votes in 2004 than any other Senate candidate in history–6.9 million votes–called the war a “disaster” and “a horror story” and said: “We should listen to the Iraqi people. Polls show that 70% of the Iraqi people now say we should leave. We should do what they want–and bring the troops home.”

Jane Harman, a “moderate” from L.A. who is the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was also in Arianna’s living room–and was notably silent. In other venues she has endorsed a proposal to maintain U.S. troop levels in Iraq and shift U.S. forces to major urban centers and key economic areas. “We’ve got about a year to get it right,” she recently said.

Elsewhere, Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco, the House Democratic leader, has endorsed Pennsylvania Democrat John Murtha’s call for immediate withdrawal. Dean, however, has supported gradual withdrawal of U.S. forces: 80,000 troops out by the end of this year, and the remaining 60,000 withdrawn by the end of 2007, with many redeployed to nearby bases in Afghanistan, Kuwait and Asia.

Candidate Busby’s position on the war is to the right of Dean: while her campaign emphasizes that she “opposed the war in Iraq from the beginning and believes the war was a distraction from the very real threat of terrorism,” she is in favor of setting “benchmarks” rather than a timetable for withdrawal — which is not too different from the Bush position.

The open district, which runs along the coast north of San Diego, has 160,000 Republicans and only 107,000 Democrats. The race is turning out to be one of the most expensive House campaigns in the country. The 11 Republicans and Busby together have raised nearly $1.9 million, making it the 14th most expensive House campaign, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Busby has raised more than $520,000, while her leading Republican opponent, Alan Kurt Uke, has reported raising $420,000, according to the Union-Tribune, most of it from his own pocket.

The crowd at Arianna’s was heavy with candidates for state and local offices and campaign staffers keeping one eye on their Blackberries. Hosts included Sherry Lansing, dubbed by the Hollywood Reporter “the grande dame of female executives,” who is stepping down as head of Paramount Pictures; Robert Greenwald, whose most recent film, “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price,” just opened in Europe; and several members of ANGLE (Access Now for Gay and Lesbian Equality). If any of them were looking for a clear party position on ending the war in Iraq, they left bitterly disappointed.

This column originally appeared in The Nation.

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