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Tenacious D
Against all odds, Dennis Kucinich plans to make his presence felt through next month’s Democratic National Convention and beyond

FOR A CANDIDATE who failed to win a single presidential primary, Dennis Kucinich has an impressively healthy sense of his own importance. Last month, Kucinich — the only Democrat other than John Kerry still actively running — opened his Democratic National Convention headquarters in a cramped fourth-floor office on Temple Place, just off Boston Common. Addressing his assembled supporters by speakerphone from Oregon, where he was campaigning in the run-up to the May 18 primary, the Ohio congressman promised to push the party to the left when the convention opens in July. "We’ll have dozens of delegates inside the convention, but we’ll have thousands of people in the streets of Boston," Kucinich declared. "We can put pressure on the party to take the right positions on civil liberties, health care, Iraq, and the Patriot Act. We’re going to be the conscience of the party. And that will help the Democrats win."

Strong words, coming from someone who's heading into the convention with 68 of the party's 4300-some delegates. When the battle for the Democratic nomination was still going strong and televised debates gave Kucinich regular access to a national audience, few voters saw his agenda — which includes immediate American withdrawal from Iraq and NAFTA, and the establishment of a cabinet-level Department of Peace — as viable. There’s no reason that should change during a convention focused on selling John Kerry as an electable centrist. But Kucinich’s self-assurance is equaled — and perhaps enabled — by his distinct lack of pragmatism. In a recent phone interview, I asked Kucinich if any Democratic leaders had urged him to quit campaigning. He answered with a loud guffaw and a prickly, pedantic rejoinder that spoke volumes about how and why he persists. "Never," Kucinich said after he finished laughing. "I mean, not at all. I don’t even think in those terms. If you don’t think in those terms, somehow it just doesn’t happen to you." After a pause, he continued: "I want you to think about that now. I don’t live in a world like that. Maybe other people do."

IT WAS CLEAR early in the Democratic-primary campaign that Kucinich faced long odds (see "Running on Ideas," News and Features, October 3, 2003). Some of his problems were substantive: when Howard Dean seized the anti-war mantle, Kucinich — who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and led opposition to the Iraq-war resolution in the House — saw his most appealing stand co-opted by a competitor. Low poll numbers, small fundraising totals, and a string of poor finishes didn’t help his cause, either. Other problems, however superficial in nature, were no less damaging. Kucinich is a small man with lank, unkempt hair and large ears; rather than fitting the standard image of a presidential candidate, he looks like a dour elf — one whose manner is often brittle and who, for good measure, just happens to be a vegan.

Still, Kucinich persevered. And though few pundits or voters ever saw him as a serious contender, his doggedness earned the grudging respect of some once-skeptical observers. Kucinich’s shining moment came in a University of New Hampshire debate last December, when he scolded moderator Ted Koppel for his fixation on inside-baseball questions and was cheered by a grateful audience. The relentlessly idealistic congressman also engaged in some old-fashioned horse-trading in the Iowa caucuses, engineering a vote swap with North Carolina senator John Edwards that added intrigue to the event and may have helped Edwards, who finished second, increase his margin over the third-place Dean. And in the "Who Wants To Be a First Lady" contest sponsored by PoliticsNH.com, Kucinich signaled a William Shatner–esque willingness to refashion himself as an ironic pop icon. (See "Five Notable Kucinichian Moments," below.)

Kucinich wasn’t the only long-shot candidate in the Democratic field, which included the Reverend Al Sharpton and former ambassador Carol Moseley Braun. But he never seemed to realize that he almost certainly wouldn’t be the nominee. Quite the contrary — on the day of the Iowa caucuses, Kucinich pondered a scenario in which he would emerge from a deadlocked convention as the Democratic Party’s nominee, telling the Associated Press: "It is inevitable, really." As other, more viable candidates bowed out, Kucinich stuck around, only conceding after Super Tuesday that he would not, in fact, become president.

The cynical explanation for Kucinich’s persistence is that he came to crave the media spotlight and the adulation showered on him by die-hard supporters, and merely said what was necessary to justify his continued presence in the race. "This is a guy who would eat publicity morning, noon, and night," says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato. "I like to call him the House equivalent of John McCain. He can’t get enough press or enough TV time." Even some of Kucinich’s ideological compatriots were annoyed by his apparent obliviousness. "The thing that bothered me about Dennis was that he would never admit the unreality of what he was doing," says former Nation editor Micah Sifry. "Had he done that, he would have been more real right away — ‘You know what, folks, this is a long-shot bid. I know how hard this may be, and we may not get there.’ But he was always saying he was going all the way, that he was going to be the next nominee. And it made a lot of people say, ‘This guy is nuts.’"

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Issue Date: June 18 - 24, 2004
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