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Prez Box

The Dark Horse

Dennis Kucinich

By Brendan Coyne | Posted 2/18/2004

And then there were five. Sen. John Kerry appears to be running away with the Democratic nomination as the Howard Dean and Sen. John Edwards campaigns, both short on cash and urged by many to drop from the race, are busy trying to figure out if the March 2 primary will be their last stand. Not so for Ohio Congressman Dennis Kucinich, who, along with fellow long shot the Rev. Al Sharpton, says he's in it until the end. During a Feb. 2 phone interview with Prez Box between campaign stops in Arizona, the former "Boy Mayor" of Cleveland talked at length about his core issues--the war in Iraq and universal health care--and described a campaign slowly gaining momentum with each event. Kucinich may have only have won two delegates to date, but, unlike Sharpton, he won't publicly acknowledge that he can't win the primary. Instead, Kucinich talks about his rivals, his campaign, and what he wants for the future of this country as if the contest were close--especially when it comes to what he says is the central issue of this presidential race, the war in Iraq.

"We're at a crisis in democracy here," Kucinich says. "This country was dragged into a war based on lies. All of my opponents [in the Democratic primary], except Reverend Sharpton, agreed at some level, at some point, that going to war against Iraq was acceptable. They've bought into the lies.

"The worst thing is that very few Democrats are in a position to challenge Bush on this war," he continues. "Senator Kerry, Senator Edwards, and Senator [Joe] Lieberman all helped to defile the Constitution and Bill of Rights by voting in favor of the war. General [Wesley] Clark's been all over the place on this issue--even Governor Dean failed to be consistent. They all supported the war, and the president can say that to nearly any other Democratic candidate."

But Kucinich isn't in much of a position to challenge Bush either, and most observers readily contend he's in no position to win the nomination. Instead, says William Allison, managing editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan Washington-based think tank that tracks campaign finances, "In a certain sense, Kucinich is running not so much to win, but to be right."

Dean Baker, co-director of the Washington-based progressive Center for Economic and Policy Research, agrees. He says at heart Kucinich doesn't really expect to win the nomination; rather, his campaign is about getting issues into the debate. Those issues--health care, a living wage, overhauling trade policies, a nonaggressive military--resonate with many Democrats, says Baker, but the focus on style and the campaign horse race in the media mean most will vote for Kerry or another candidate portrayed as more mainstream, regardless of platform.

Kucinich agrees that the media are missing the message--that is, the issues. "The major domestic issue, once we sort out the impact of war on the domestic economy, is health care," he says. "The current system is out of control. Forty-three million people have no access to health care, outside of an emergency system short on resources. We need medicine and health care for all, with a single-payer system. Sixteen trillion dollars exists for health services between the government and private sector--that's about 15 percent of the Gross Domestic Product."

Kucinich says he would dismantle the health insurance system and replace it with a not-for-profit one under Medicare, a marked departure from the proposals put forth by Dean, Edwards, and Kerry. "What my opponents want is to keep the current for-profit system, with all its executive salaries, insurers, promotions, and advertising," he says. "But the system's broken. All these health insurance companies exist to do is capitalize off the misery of people who are ill."

Kucinich may speak with conviction, but he has had a hard time convincing voters to cast ballots for him. And, unless he picks up more delegates, there is little chance he can affect the Democratic National Convention or Party Platform, according to the Center for Public Integrity's Allison. He cautions that, unless Kucinich brings in more than five percent of the delegates, giving him a prominent convention role could damage the Democratic nominee, much as Pat Buchanan's divisive speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention harmed then-President George H.W. Bush. Maureen Steinbruner, vice president of the Center for National Policy, a left-leaning D.C. think tank, puts the delegate figure even higher, at 20 percent, a scenario she says is unlikely because Kucinich's support, measured by primary results, hovers around 2 percent or 3 percent, proving Kucinich is too far from the center to effectively push his agenda.

Likewise, Steinbruner dismisses the idea that Kucinich doesn't get enough press. "When you consider the constituent strength Kucinich has, the media's giving him a lot of attention," she says. "The media is doing a pretty good job covering all the candidates and issues, but they aren't getting in-depth on any."

That assessment is shared by Towson University political science professor Michael Korzi, who adds, "It's kind of a catch-22, the horse race. We criticize the media for only paying attention to it, but I'm not all that sure most people really want to pay attention to policy."

And that, for Kucinich, like many before him, is the problem.

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