It was Sunday night on the bluffs overlooking Zuma Beach in Malibu. The red carpet was duct-taped to the driveway as caterers put the finishing touches on vegan tofu cakes and root vegetable sautees. As the sun dipped into the Pacific, in strode a small man with a disarming smile.
Presidential longshot Dennis J. Kucinich was a long way from Cleveland. The Democratic congressman — a native of the town he once described as the land of bowling and polka — eased around the Malibu estate comfortably, dispensing back pats and cheek kisses.
In a 10-minute speech, the 57-year-old Ohio lawmaker incorporated Simon & Garfunkel and the Hindu gods Vishnu and Shiva, along with a ringing call for the U.S. to withdraw from Iraq. "My presidency will be about the end of fear and the beginning of hope in this country," Kucinich said in remarks that urged the replacement of American troops with U.N. forces.
With a crowd of about 150 whooping and rising to its feet, Kucinich advocated universal health care and slashing the nation's defense budget to better fund education.
Many of Kucinich's supporters concede that he has little chance of winning the Democratic nomination, but they say the candidate offers the purest progressive voice in a crowded field of nine Democrats vying for the presidential nod.
In a stronghold of support like liberal California, those who back him do so with idealistic zeal. "He really walks his talk, and he doesn't change what he stands for as the wind blows," said Marilyn Winfield, a psychologist and Kucinich volunteer from Pacific Palisades.
"Dennis speaks from his heart and his mind. I find that to be so profoundly courageous," said actress Lindsay Wagner, the "Bionic Woman" of 1970s television and one of several Hollywood luminaries in attendance.
But conventional wisdom marks a Kucinich presidency as improbable at best. The ardent liberal trails badly in the polls.
A New Hampshire survey conducted last week for the Concord Monitor newspaper found Kucinich with 1% of the vote, above former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois and the Rev. Al Sharpton, but well below front-runner Howard Dean's 41%.
Kucinich's congressional record resonates deeply with longtime liberals. As co-chair with Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) of the House's Progressive Caucus, Kucinich voted against President Bush's resolution to invade Iraq. He also helped organize the 126 House Democrats who opposed the measure.
"Once the administration started taking this country to war in Iraq
it was at that point I felt so strongly about the direction we were headed, I understood it was important to keep speaking out," he said in an interview. "It became obvious that I was representing a point of view which really wasn't being heard."
That's one reason his followers like him so much — they feel he tilts the debate leftward in a field of moderates.
"In my heart, he'll get elected. In my mind, I realize that's not the way it works in this country," said actor James Cromwell, farmer Hoggett in the "Babe" movies. "What Dennis' real value is, he holds the bar up to those other men that have to consider the progressive element in this country."
Some experts agree that Kucinich's liberal platforms — which include a plan for getting American troops out of Iraq in 90 days — separate him from the rest of the field.
"He is the only leftist candidate in the race, really, that is consistent on all of the issues," said Joan Hoff, a history professor at Montana State University-Bozeman and a former president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency in New York. But Hoff says that Kucinich faces daunting obstacles — particularly when raising money.
Press secretary David Swanson estimates that the Kucinich campaign has raised about $4.5 million to date, a fraction of the $25 million that Dean had raised by October, and only about 5% of Bush's estimated reelection war chest.
Money and the "horse race" aspects of modern campaigning have become too much of a media obsession, Kucinich said. The candidate garnered national attention when he scolded moderator Ted Koppel at a Dec. 9 Democratic debate for questioning Kucinich's candidacy and emphasizing Al Gore's endorsement of Dean.
"I felt compelled to point out to him that I felt he was trivializing the debate by talking about endorsements and polls and money," Kucinich said of the ABC newsman.
As primary season approaches, with the first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire on Jan. 19 and Jan. 27, respectively, Kucinich said he is confident he can defy expectations.
"I expect to go to the convention with a bloc of votes," he said.
However, "the bar's been set so low," he said, that it wouldn't be difficult to place better. "Most people are saying I'm not even a blip on the screen."
Nonpartisan political analyst Charles Cook said Kucinich won't win but will considerably enhance "his stature as a spokesman for liberal and populist causes."
Many could argue that that's already happened.
The once-obscure congressman and former mayor now pals around with indie rocker Ani DiFranco and actors Danny Glover and Jeff Bridges.
Now, his peculiar brand of spirituality and sincerity has found a national stage.
"He has a soul and a heart. Howard Dean is missing that," said June Mikrut, a campaign volunteer from Hermosa Beach.
After a candle-lighting ceremony around the pool to celebrate the winter solstice, Kucinich and partygoers — who raised an estimated $25,000 on Sunday night — moved inside to gather around the piano. Hostess Susan Clarke picked up her flute to accompany her mother, Dottie, on the piano. The duo broke into one of Kucinich's favorite songs — "The Impossible Dream."
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times