Chris Dodd unveiled a health care campaign pitch — and made clear it’ll be a centerpiece of his career-saving quest to hold onto his U.S. Senate seat.

Dodd, an old-fashioned political stump speaker, made the three-minute health care pitch to a friendly crowd Tuesday night: members of the New Haven Democratic Party Town Committee gathered for a holiday party at the Shubert theater.

Click on the play arrow to watch the pitch.

It was his first local appearance since he helped lead a successful 24-day effort to pass a sweeping health care reform law through the U.S. Senate.

Many Congressmen are returning home to start running against that bill, which has provoked much opposition throughout the country.

Dodd said he’s convinced that he can tap popular support for the bill as he begins the hardest sell of his political life: to return into the good graces of Connecticut voters and retain the Senate seat he has held for 30 years. Even largely unknown Republican opponents are currently running ahead of Democrat Dodd in polls about the 2010 campaign. (Click here for a story on Dodd’s predicament.)

“It’s a very good sell,” Dodd said after his speech, referring to the health reform bill.

In his pitch to the crowd of politicos assembled on the Shubert lobby’s mezzanine, Dodd offered a preview not only of his own campaign theme, but also of the arguments Democrats may use nationwide as they try to rebuild popular support for the health measure.

The speech also reflected the dynamic of the upcoming campaign: He’ll run as an insider and politico pro who gets things done, while opponents will seek to use his experience against him as a symbol of what’s wrong with Washington.

“It ought to be true that every child in America regardless of his circumstances has the right to a doctor if he gets sick,” Dodd declared. “That’s what we’re about to do in this country. It’ll be the single most important vote to have occurred since social security and the adoption of Medicare.”

The Senate passed the measure on the day of Christmas Eve. Dodd spoke of how the Senate last debated a bill on Christmas Eve in 1963, concerning the Vietnam War. It last passed a Christmas Eve bill more than 100 years ago.

“Every other president from Harry Truman, every other Congress since the 1940s have tried to craft a national health care plan for our nation. Every one for various reasons … failed. We’re one vote away” now, Dodd proclaimed.

His point: This is big stuff. And he was a prime mover in it.

Not only did he help write the bill. Not only did he shepherd it through the Senate health committee (when he filled in for dying Sen. Ted Kennedy). Not only did he help oversee the floor debate for the Democrats. He’s now on the committee reconciling the House and Senate bills for a final vote.

In case the crowd didn’t get that point, Dodd spoke of where he was at 8:30 a.m. Christmas Eve, after the bill passed. He was at Ted Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. And his Blackberry went off. On the other line was President Obama. Obama was calling, Dodd said, “to say thanks” to the “10 members of Congress who were deeply involved in this.”

After the speech, Dodd was asked about the senators and Congressmen planning to use the bill as a target in their own reelection campaigns.

“I’ve heard they’re going to run on repealing the health care bill,” he said. “What are they going to repeal? The 31 million people who are going to get covered?”

He ticked off top provisions of the bill — all of which he said he’s convinced people will support: subsidies and increased employer coverage for those 31 million currently uninsured people over 10 years; an immediate end to insurance companies denying coverage to kids who have “preexisting conditions” and an eventual end for adults; a requirement that 80 to 85 percent of every dollar taken in by insurers go toward health care, not profits or overhead; $10 billion to create new community health centers; money to lure 16,500 new primary care doctors to the field; an extension of the time children can stay on parents’ health plans from 23 to 26 years old.

“I’ll be very fascinated by what they’re going to drop,” Dodd said of the opponents.

Amid his longtime liberal supporters in New Haven Tuesday night, Dodd got a respite from the hostility he has encountered in Connecticut and nationally over the past year thanks to a series of mini-scandals and protests against the health bill.

The Shubert crowd cheered his every applause line except one: when he slipped in that “my colleague in the Senate, Joe Lieberman voted for the health care bill.” That elicited murmurs and boos.

The assembled Democrats were too polite, and loyal to Dodd, to mention too loudly that many in the party have been hoping he’ll step aside to make way for a more popular candidate like Dick Blumenthal.

Well, one Democratic gate-crasher did make that argument. Only he argued that he, not an established, well-known Democrat, should get the nomination.

That gate-crasher was Merrick Alpert, who’s been mounting a longshot campaign to challenge Dodd for the party nomination. Alpert’s team set up a table by the Shubert front door, where the candidate handed out bars of soap (pictured). The soap’s front wrapper had his name on it. The back read: Won’t it Be Nice To Have A Clean Senator.”

Alpert was asked how it felt to watch from the shadows as the crowd — representing the state’s largest bloc of convention delegates — poured adulation on his opponent.

Merrick responding by invoking his military service.

“We salute the rank, not the man,” he said. “Dodd is not electable. Everyone in this room realizes it except him.”