Published on Monday, May 17, 2004 by the New York Times
Down But Not Out, Kucinich Keeps Fighting
by Rick Lyman
PORTLAND, Ore. - Before Americans get too engrossed in a general election contest between President Bush and Senator John Kerry, Dennis J. Kucinich would like to remind them of something: He's still out here, working hard every day, slogging from town to town, the second-to-last person still standing in the fight for the Democratic presidential nomination.
"Math is not my major, but I can count," the Ohio congressman said as his car wound along the dripping, piney woods of the central Oregon coast, a glowering sky flecking the windshield with pin-sized raindrops. "I understand that Kerry has enough delegates to be nominated. I can count, but I can also figure."
And this is how Dennis Kucinich - the former boy mayor of Cleveland whose half-forgotten, dead-but-still-twitching presidential campaign is now focusing on Tuesday's Oregon primary - figures it:
"The reason I have not dropped out of the race is that we may have a nominee, but the future direction of the Democratic Party has not yet been determined."
And what he wants Mr. Kerry, and the Democratic Party, to do is to take an unambiguous stand not only against the war in Iraq but against "the very idea that war is inevitable." The nation's whole political mindset must be changed, Mr. Kucinich said.
"We are at the unusual juncture where what is morally right and politically efficacious are in confluence," he said. "My presence in the race provides a persistent reminder of the necessity of taking a new direction, the first step of which is to bring our troops home now."
O.K. But isn't that pretty big talk for a guy who has won exactly zero primaries - in fact, who performed poorly in most of them?
Mr. Kucinich recognizes this, and knows that much of the country has pretty much forgotten that he is still running. "At this point, I am not suffering from the overwhelming burden of high expectations," he said.
However, he said, the war in Iraq is turning out to be just the disaster he had predicted, and if he can just keep accumulating delegates here and there, he might be able to go into the Democratic convention in Boston this summer with enough juice to nudge the party toward his way of thinking.
That's all he wants now.
"I guess you can say I am saving the Democratic Party from itself," Mr. Kucinich said. "And I can possibly prevent some people from jumping into the arms of a third-party candidate. I mean, why is Ralph Nader even an issue this year? What is to stop us from stealing his playbook?"
At the moment, Mr. Kucinich is focusing on Oregon. He has spent 30 days here in the last two months, and he is using some of his precious reserve of campaign funds on last-minute television advertisements.
He takes heart that Mr. Kerry, whose campaign has paid little attention to the primary calendar in recent weeks, feels compelled to come to Portland on Monday, with no less than former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont in tow.
"What's happening," Mr. Kucinich insisted, "is that events are starting to prove that I was right. When all else fails, truth has a way of protecting its own."
At the public library in Florence, on a leafy street between Highway 101 and the sea, more than 100 Kucinich supporters spilled from a small meeting room at 7:30 Saturday morning. He was due any minute for the first of six stops that day.
"I figure we have to have someone for those of us who are against the war," said Don Norton, 71, a retired corrections official wearing a "No War" button. "If it wasn't for Kucinich, there wouldn't be anyone speaking for us."
Howard Shapiro, 70, a retired schoolteacher sporting two buttons ("Dissent Is Patriotic" and "Re-Defeat Bush"), said that like many in the room, he expected to vote for Mr. Kerry in November. But on Tuesday he goes Kucinich, if only to send Mr. Kerry a message.
A microphone was passed through the crowd so people could explain what brought them there.
"I'm just getting tired of being embarrassed to be an American," one woman said.
"I really like to be in a place where my ideas are not superfluous," said another.
The crowd rose and cheered when Mr. Kucinich arrived in a blue blazer over a red shirt and blue jeans.
"How many of us have had that feeling, that we can't believe what this country has become?" Mr. Kucinich asked. "I know that many of us feel a sense of disconnection from our country, and that this produces in us a kind of grief. We grieve for the America that was, the America that cared for civil liberties."
American politics, apparently, have gone completely topsy-turvy: conservatives crank up deficits and get bogged down in foreign wars while progressives pine wistfully for a golden-hued past.
Normally, Mr. Kucinich speaks in a calm, reassuring way, though every now and then his voice rises in a passionate crescendo. The effect is less that of a lonely political crusade than a religious revival, and his language has echoes of the pulpit.
"What is the way out of this?" he asked. "It is reminding us where we came from."
At a rally later in Lincoln City, nearly 200 people packed the Bijou Cinema, where Mr. Kucinich was presented with a quilt bearing the logo "Dept. of Peace." This referred to his proposal to create such a cabinet-level agency to promote harmony and conflict resolution, a notion much ridiculed on conservative talk radio shows as emblematic of the sort of fuzzy-headed thinking common among this particular strain of liberal.
"We can change the whole debate in this country, and we've got to do it," Mr. Kucinich said. "It's about the party standing for something, something other than the next check from the corporate interests."
In an almost hushed voice, he continued: "This is a spiritual matter, not just a practical political matter."
The entire time he spoke, an angelic young woman stood at the side of the auditorium with her arms raised above her head, sometimes shaking them gently, as though sending waves through the air.
The young woman, Eden Sky, 27, said she was "focusing," which she described as a kind of praying, a blessing. And she seemed almost puzzled when asked why she chose to focus on Mr. Kucinich. "Because he is the only one worth focusing on," she said.
If he continues to win a few here and a few there, Mr. Kucinich said, he expects to go to Boston with about 50 delegates, and to bring along an additional 2,000 supporters. "We will help shape the external environment of the convention as well," he said.
What he really must do, he said, is to have a serious conversation with Mr. Kerry, with whom he has a friendly relationship, to try to persuade him that a troops-out-now platform is the way to beat President Bush and unlock the door to the nation's progressive yearnings.
"Up until now, I have been his opponent in the primaries and it wouldn't be appropriate," Mr. Kucinich said. "But the time to have that discussion is probably very close."
He reached into one of his traveling bags and pulled out a thick stack of newspaper pages, each one with articles meticulously underlined, nuggets of information that he found interesting or appalling, more grist for his mill.
"We've been out here campaigning for 15 months," he said. "It's a long time."
But it will be worth it, he said, if he can just inch his party toward justice.
"In a way, I feel like Johnny Appleseed," Mr. Kucinich said. "I'm planting seeds all over this country: seeds of peace, seeds of hope. At some point, maybe years from now, there will be orchards. So in a sense, it's about more than this election. It's about more than politics. It really is about envisioning a new America."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company