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Running on ideas
Presidential hopeful — and Democratic long shot — Dennis Kucinich doesn’t want your sympathy. He wants your vote.

FIFTEEN MINUTES before the guest of honor arrived at a Dennis Kucinich reception in Cambridge last month, the anticipatory buzz you’d expect to precede a presidential candidate was in the air. But there was also an undercurrent of anxiety. A woman who backed Green Party gubernatorial candidate Jill Stein in 2002 voiced her concern in vaguely maternal terms: "We work so hard on candidates — I’m thinking about Jill Stein. How could we have done better? What did we do wrong? And how can we protect this candidate?" Another woman, whose T-shirt proclaimed President George W. Bush an INTERNATIONAL TERRORIST, struck a similarly protective note as she compared Kucinich to the other Democratic candidates. "To me, he’s like a Rolls-Royce in a room full of Fords, and I cry when I think about how little-known he is in comparison to these other people. It kills me." A third, Newton resident Christina Jameson, hadn’t given her heart to Kucinich just yet; like a jilted lover afraid of being hurt again, she was seeking reassurance before taking the plunge. Jameson’s top priority is removing Bush from office, and Kucinich’s low poll numbers had her worried that he isn’t up to the task. "I made a pact with myself: when I vote, when I work in a campaign this time, I’m not just going to follow my heart," Jameson explained. "I’m going to do what’s practical. How long do I wait to bail out of here?"

Two hours earlier, traveling from Logan Airport to Cambridge, Dennis Kucinich didn’t sound like someone seeking protection or sympathy. And he certainly wasn’t acknowledging any weaknesses in his candidacy. Instead, the Ohio congressman outlined the "singular positions" he believes will vault him from the back of the Democratic pack. Kucinich — who voted against the joint resolution authorizing Bush to use military force against Iraq on October 10, 2002 — advocates immediate US withdrawal from Iraq and complete transfer of power to the UN. He rejects the key institutions of economic globalization, which he says have ravaged American industry and benefit only multinational corporations and a small economic elite. (As president, Kucinich would opt out of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization and return to bilateral trade, conditioned on mutual acceptance of workers’ rights, human rights, and environmental controls.) He’s proposed a single-payer universal health-care system that would include complementary and alternative medicine, and would implement a progressive tax structure to make full Social Security benefits available at age 65. He also plugs targeting programs like missile defense to cut military spending by $60 billion, and says he’d reallocate those funds to create a universal pre-kindergarten program.

Those positions aren’t the only reasons Kucinich appeals to left-leaning voters. He’s introduced legislation to repeal the Patriot Act, favors marriage rights for same-sex couples, and vows he’ll beef up alternative-energy programs, if elected. In April, as the Supreme Court heard arguments in the University of Michigan affirmative-action cases, Kucinich and Representative Barbara Lee — the two co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — issued a strongly worded statement in defense of affirmative action. The only social issue on which Kucinich lacks progressive credibility is abortion: he identified himself as pro-choice only a year ago, but now — demonstrating the zeal of the convert — says he’d make support of Roe v. Wade a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees.

Kucinich’s confidence in the rectitude of his views is matched by his conviction that his campaign is on track. "We’re right where we need to be," he declared. "Now we’re organized in 50 states; in a number of early primary states, our structure, our organization, is becoming strong.... I think this presidential race is going to take shape late instead of early because of the size of the field. There are a number of issues where I have a singular position, and as the debates ensue, my candidacy is going to become" — Kucinich paused, then found the phrase he was looking for — "the prominent alternative to the rest of the field."

From the outside looking in, Kucinich’s confidence seems unwarranted. So far, the highlight of the Kucinich for President campaign has been the progressive Web site’s June online primary, where Kucinich received 24 percent of the vote, second only to Howard Dean’s 44 percent. Since then, the polls generally used to measure a candidate’s viability have been exceedingly unkind. For Kucinich, a strong showing has meant finishing in eighth or ninth place, and 10th-place — i.e., last-place — finishes have been common. In the most recent Newsweek poll, two percent of registered Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents nationwide identified Kucinich as their Democratic nominee of choice, tying him with former New Zealand ambassador Carol Moseley Braun and Florida senator Bob Graham for the bottom spot. Kucinich has also struggled financially: he raised only $1.5 million in the second quarter of 2003, less than every candidate other than Moseley Braun and the Reverend Al Sharpton, and had just over $1 million in the bank as of June 30. (Third-quarter filings with the Federal Election Commission won’t be available for another two weeks.)

As a result, it’s hard to find anyone outside the Kucinich campaign who believes he’s got even the slimmest chance of becoming the Democratic nominee. William Mayer, a Northeastern political-science professor and editor of The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2004, believes Kucinich can still affect the race; as an obvious alternative for progressive voters, he says, Kucinich can keep Howard Dean from drifting too far to the center. Still, Mayer adds, "I don’t think he’s going anywhere. One problem is, even for the Democratic Party, he’s a bit out on the left. The second problem is that there are other candidates who simply have a better first dibs on that constituency. First of all, of course, there’s Howard Dean. One of the big issues for that constituency is the anti-war issue, and it was Dean who managed to get out in front of that one. A rather substantial part of the Democratic left wing is also black, but an awful lot of black voters are more likely to vote for Sharpton or Carol Moseley Braun. Take away all that, and the number of people still left for Kucinich just isn’t all that large." (Case in point: Boston city councilor Chuck Turner, who received a Massachusetts Peace Action award last month at a ceremony where Kucinich was a featured speaker, says he was impressed by what he heard but that he’s still backing Sharpton.)

David Martin, a reporter at the alternative weekly Cleveland Scene, wrote a critical profile of Kucinich earlier this year that questioned his legislative efficacy and emphasized his flair for the dramatic. Martin stresses that Kucinich — who had a controversial two-year stint as mayor of Cleveland in the late 1970s and was first elected to Congress in 1996 — has some passionate supporters in Ohio. But he, too, dismisses Kucinich’s presidential aspirations. "Even if you agree with the guy and really like him, the guy’s just not a presidential candidate," Martin says. "He just doesn’t have it."

The odd Kucinich backer will acknowledge that he may not be elected. "[Kucinich] isn’t just a candidate, but a vessel for a certain set of ideas," Larry Kushi, a Brookline native who works for Kucinich in California, said during Kucinich’s Cambridge reception. "What’s important is ensuring that the vision he carries and speaks for us is part of that debate."

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Click here for the Talking Politics archives Issue Date: October 3 - 9, 2003
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