The battle is now underway to determine which bald, Jewish Democrat who voted for the Iraq war will continue to represent the San Fernando Valley in Congress.

At their first debate on Thursday night, Reps. Brad Sherman and Howard Berman eagerly tore into each other, setting the tone for what is certain to be a bitter and expensive contest.

Sherman claims to have a wide lead in his internal polls. But he acted as if he were 10 points down, attacking Berman for his leadership role in passing the Iraq war resolution, for his support for free trade, and for his ties to Super PACs.

“We're trying to set the agenda here,” said Parke Skelton, Sherman's strategist. “There are some real clear differences between the two of them.”

Berman hit back, noting that Sherman also voted in favor of the Iraq resolution. Sherman's position on the war, Berman said, amounts to “I was against it before I was for it before I was against it.”

In response, Sherman said that Berman had blocked compromise resolutions that had greater restraints. “When all the middle approaches were denied, I made a mistake” by supporting the war, Sherman said.

“Maybe he doesn't have the skills to get his position through,” Berman said.

The two Democrats clearly had different strategies. Sherman sought to appeal to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party through avowals of ideological purity. He noted his 100% voting records from the Human Rights Campaign, Planned Parenthood, the California Teachers Association and the Sierra Club. Sherman also attacked NAFTA and other free trade agreements, and talked up a plan to shore up Social Security by imposing the payroll tax on those earning more than $250,000.

Howard Berman: Punching back

Howard Berman: Punching back

Berman, meanwhile, pitched himself in more pragmatic terms, stressing his skills as an effective dealmaker and his ability to bring home federal dollars to the San Fernando Valley. He cited his efforts to secure funding for Hansen Dam, for widening the 405 freeway, and for more LAPD officers.

Republicans Mark Reed and Susan Shelley also participated. Of the two, Reed appears to be the stronger candidate. He distinguished himself at the debate by out-hawking both Sherman and Berman on the issue of Iran and nuclear weapons. Reed suggested that the U.S. should bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, rather than wait for the Israelis to do it. If Reed can consolidate enough conservative support, he has a shot to get into the November runoff.

Most observers, however, expect Sherman and Berman to face each other twice: first in June and again in November. In the runoff, Republicans and independents could make the difference.

The race is likely to be one of the most expensive in the country this year. Eric Bauman, chair of the L.A. Democratic Party, predicted it would end up costing $12 million. Three independent “Super PACs” have formed to back Berman's campaign: the Committee to Elect and Effective Valley Congressman, the Valley-Israel Alliance, and Rebuilding America.

At the debate, Sherman urged Berman to sign a pledge that would neutralize the impact of Super PACs. The pledge — which Sherman printed out on a giant posterboard — would commit both candidates to refund whatever money was spent on their behalf by Super PACs to the U.S. Treasury out of their own campaign coffers.

Berman brushed it off.

After he's done in Congress, Berman said, “Brad will make an excellent Hollywood stuntman.”

LA Weekly