WASHINGTON -- His name doesn't show up on the growing "short list" of Democratic hopefuls, but political allies of Rep. Dennis Kucinich think he is seriously considering a bid for his party's 2004 presidential nomination.
The Cleveland Democrat, elected in November to his fourth term in the U.S. House, remains coy about his prospects.
"The issues that I have been debating in Congress, which are the major issues that I talk about in Cleveland, are resonating with people across the country," he said last week. "As a result, I am hear ing from thou sands of people from East Coast to West Coast, talking to me about running. I am listening.
"It is a great honor . . . to even be considered."
An announcement of a Kucinich candidacy is not imminent but could come this winter or in the early spring. In the meantime, the field for what some call an "invisible primary" is expanding almost weekly. The challenge of merely lifting off is daunting for anyone, much less a U.S. House member who is not widely known nationally outside the "progressive" - read "liberal" - wing of politics.
U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich
Kucinich has yet to demonstrate he can raise enough money to sustain a coast-to-coast campaign, or expand his base beyond the peace activists, environmentalists and free-trade critics he addresses in national speaking appearances.
So, what makes Dennis Kucinich run?
He has traveled to dozens of American cities, preaching - one speech was titled a "Prayer for America" - against war in Iraq and criticizing Republican economic policies.
Ohio State University political scientist Paul Beck said long shots often enter campaigns under the guise of using a national platform to draw attention to their issues. For Kucinich, that would include a fight against tax cuts and free-trade deals.
"In many ways it serves the candidate more than the issues," Beck said. "It is a way for the candidate to become known over time, to build name recognition and visibility for a subsequent campaign. It also helps them have influence in their own party."
However, Beck said that, in the end, when such a candidacy collapses, he doubts much has been accomplished in the way of "educating voters." Voters in presidential campaigns, he said, are "usually looking for capable leaders," not causes.
Support from labor
But Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL-CIO, said Kucinich could force other Democrats to respond to issues important to the labor movement - workers' rights and jobs lost to free trade, for instance.
"He is a guy who is not afraid to speak up and fight for what he believes in. He wins just by putting his issues - our issues - front and center," Rosenthal said. "In terms of winnability, it is a steep, steep uphill fight."
Ralph Nader, who appeals to economic populists in much the same way as Kucinich, thinks the former Cleveland mayor should jump into the race.
"There needs to be a clearly progressive candidate in the primaries," Nader said recently when asked about Kucinich. "I hope he does."
Nader stopped short of endorsing Kucinich, since he is uncertain about his own plans. He ran for president as the candidate of the Green Party in 2000.
But Nader is a Kucinich fan - part of Kucinich's circle of famous friends, which includes columnist Arianna Huffington and Warren Beatty, the actor who thought about running for president himself in 2000.
An Internet site, www.draftkucinich.com, is promoting him, calling attention in a Wednesday posting to a mention of his possible candidacy on ABC's political Web site, The Note, and in a Washington Post online column.
"Kucinich must be urged to run," proclaims the Draft Kucinich site, which is operated by a man who dabbles in politics but has said he has no ties to Kucinich. "Democrats, Independents, Greens, people are writing to voice their support."
While Kucinich contemplates a step that could bring him fame or make him look foolish, others are jumping in.
Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt and Vermont Gov. Howard Dean have formed "exploratory" committees signaling their intentions to run. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut is expected to join the fray on Monday, and the Rev. Al Sharpton of New York has said he will get in later this month. Florida Sen. Bob Graham and former Colorado Sen. Gary Hart, who ran in 1984 and 1988, are said to be considering bids.
While this incipient campaign holds little interest for many voters, the would-be candidates already are jousting for campaign money and signing up seasoned political operatives. He who hesitates loses out on veteran staff and financial commitments.
Kucinich, who has run outside his Cleveland base only once - a failed bid for Ohio secretary of state in a Democratic primary - raised $508,712 for his 2002 re-election, including more than $195,000 from labor unions. He had $48,697 in his campaign treasury going into the new year.
To run a viable presidential race, a candidate has "to raise a million bucks a week," estimated Cleveland Heights lawyer Glenn Billington, who worked in past campaigns for Hart and former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
Billington, who admires Kucinich for his work in Congress, questions whether the lawmaker has the organizing skills or money-raising ability for such a mammoth effort.
"We are in the year that counts. You saw what happened with Tom Daschle," he said, referring to the Senate leader who last week decided to bypass the presidential contest. "You have to be out there. It is full time."