“Two months ago, the special election race in the 2nd Congressional District, which stretches across seven southern Ohio counties, was expected to be a low-key affair, a near-automatic win for whichever republican candidate emerged from the June 14 GOP primary,” the local newspaper, the Cincinnati Enquirer, noted on Tuesday. “After all, the previous congressman, Republican Rob Portman, routinely won the district with more than 70 percent of the vote.”

In fact, Portman, who was plucked from the southern-Ohio district by President Bush to serve as the US Trade Representative, won all of his seven campaigns for the seat with more than 72 percent of the vote. The district had been so radically gerrymandered by Republican governors and legislators that it was all-but-unimaginable that a Democrat could ever be competitive there.

But, in Tuesday night, Democrat Paul Hackett almost did just that. Hackett’s near-win came after a remarkable campaign in which he blunted Republican efforts to exploit national security issues and provided food for thought for Democrats as they prepare for 2006 Congressional races nationwide.

Republican Jean Schmidt, a feverish foe of reproductive rights who used her links to religious right activists to beat more mainstream Republicans and secure the party’s nomination for the open seat, was leading Hackett, a smart, telegenic Iraq War veteran who criticized the Bush administration for leading the country into the war and then mishandling it, by an unexpectedly thin margin of just 3,573 votes. Unofficial returns gave Schmidt 59,095 votes (51.7 percent) to 55,091 votes (48.3 percent) for Hackett.

Remarkably, in a district that favored George W. Bush over John Kerry by almost a 2-1 margin in 2004, Hackett won four of seven counties and only narrowly lost the most populous county, Hamilton. Only an overwhelming vote for Schmidt from her home county, Clermont, secured the district for the Republican.

Hackett might well have pulled the ultimate upset had he not been “swiftboated” by Republican operatives and right-wing talk radio hosts in the final days of the campaign. Even nationally-syndicated hosts such as Rush Limbaugh devoted time to attacking Hackett’s military record, patriotism and sincerity.

Despite the battering from right-wing media, and despite being overwhelmingly outspent, Hackett achieved the best Democratic showing in the region since the Watergate election of 1974. Indeed, on Wednesday morning, the Enquirer referred to the Democrat’s showing as “nothing short of astounding.”

This was not a simple Democratic surge. Hackett, a lawyer and former local elected official who entered the race at the last minute, proved to be a masterful candidate. But that does not mean that there are no lessons to be learned from this near upset.For one thing, Democratic National Committee chair Howard Dean’s “50 state strategy” — which argues that Democrats should compete hard in contests that had previously been ceded to the Democrats — makes a lot of sense when the opposition party can find smart, edgy candidates who are willing to break political rules.Hackett was just such a candidate.

The Marine Reserve major who volunteered to serve in Iraq did not hesitate to trumpet his military, but he was also blunt about his feelings regarding the commander-in-chief. Calling the president the greatest threat to the safety and security of Americans, Hackett said of Bush during the campaign: “I’ve said that I don’t like the son-of-a-bitch that lives in the White House but I’d put my life on the line for him.”

In a sense, that’s exactly what Hackett did, re-enlisting in the Marines in 2004 and then serving in the high-profile fight for the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah.In a pre-election interview with USA Today shortly before the election, Hackett rebuked Bush for his swaggering 2003 declaration regarding the Iraqi insurgents that: “There are some who feel like that the conditions are such that they can attack us there. My answer is bring them on.”

“That’s the most incredibly stupid comment I’ve ever heard a president of the United States make,” Hackett told the interviewer. “He cheered on the enemy.”Hackett also referred to Republican supporters of the war who had not served in the military as “chickenhawks.”

Serious Democratic candidates have rarely been so blunt regarding the president’s shoot-from-the-lip management style. But Hackett’s willingness to take Bush on, as well as his own compelling story, played well in the special-election contest.No, not well enough to win.

But certainly well enough to position Hackett for a run against Schmidt in 2006 — and certainly enough to encourage other Democratic contenders to take the gloves off. It is true that not every challenger will have the military credentials that Hackett brought to the Ohio contest. It should be noted, however, that a number of veterans are expected to run for the House in 2006 as Democrats, including another Marine, David Ashe, who came close to winning an open Virginia seat in 2004.