Gore Vidal, the grandson of a senator who stood himself for the House and Senate and then played a senator in Tim Robbins’ brilliant film “Bob Roberts,” has been campaigning this spring — almost as hard as if he was once again on the ballot.

The author, resident in Los Angeles, has thrown himself into the campaign of Marcy Winograd, the teacher and progressive activist who is mounting a spirited challenge to Bush-friendly Democratic Representative Jane Harman for an L.A.-area House seat in today’s California Democratic primary.

Harman, who voted to authorize President Bush to order the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and who has supported the administration repeatedly in divisions on issues ranging from the Patriot Act to warrantless wiretapping and domestric surveillance, is trying to sell herself as a generally solid Democrat who should be forgiven her lapses.

Vidal, displaying the knowing skepticism that is his greatest contribution to the American political discourse, is unwilling to accept the incumbent’s election-season spin.

“The all important issues are the war and civil liberties,” says the social critic who has appeared at a number of Winograd fund-raising events and rallies, including an election-eve gathering in Venice. “I’m not even interested in Harman’s other issues. She has been wrong on the war, and the war is such a fundamental issue.”

In fact, Harman’s been wrong on a host of other issues. For instance, she’s been such a disappointing player on trade policy and related economic concerns that the United Auto Workers [Western Region] has joined several other unions — including the United Farm Workers of America, United Teachers of Los Angeles and the University Council of the American Federation of Teachers — in taking the rare step of endorsing a challenge to a Democratic incumbent in a primary election. But Vidal’s right that the distinction on the war is fundamental; as Winograd says: “I will vote to end the war in Iraq and to bring our troops home. Harman will not.”

Vidal is not merely anti-Harman, however. He is pro-Winograd. Noting the challenger’s clear vision with regard to foreign policy, her consistent critique of the domestic eavesdropping programs so favored by the current administration, and her pledge to hold Bush accountable — using all the means available to a member of Congress, up to and including the option of impeachment — the author labels her “a real Democrat” and suggests that she is the sort of candidate who might inspire the party’s broad if frequently disenchanted base.

“Marcy Winograd’s election would teach a lesson all around,” Vidal told me the other day. “The Democratic Party is theoretically a minority but in reality is always the majority in the country. When Democrats vote, and when their votes are actually counted, which is of course an issue of some concern with these Diebold [voting] machines, they prevail. But we have been in a rough period where that has not been the case. Now, we are told that this is about to change, that this will be a good year for Democrats. Perhaps. But it does no good that a Jane Harman will benefit from a Democratic year — which it looks like this is going to be — when we can dump her and get a real Democrat to take her place.”