COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - Democratic presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich has just 1 percent support in the polls, six candidates ahead of him and next to no chance of becoming U.S. president. But don’t tell him that.
A six-term anti-war congressman from Cleveland, Kucinich was the last Democrat standing against Sen. John Kerry in 2004 — if only because he refused to quit. And he’s convinced his second run for the presidential nomination will be more successful.
“I’m in this campaign to win,” Kucinich said after an Ohio campaign stop. “People are looking for an alternative.”
Voters looking for an alternative to mainstream U.S. politics will certainly find that in Kucinich, a 60-year-old vegan who survived homelessness as a child and a Mafia death threat early in his career to become a key figure in the growing anti-war movement.
During Monday night’s CNN/YouTube Democratic debate, Kucinich wore the liberal label proudly.
“You notice what CNN did? They didn’t put anybody to the left of me,” Kucinich said, to audience laughter.
“I’m not sure it would be possible to find anybody,” host Anderson Cooper shot back with a smile.
At every campaign stop, Kucinich reminds voters he opposed the Iraq war from the beginning — not always a popular position during the 2004 election but one now shared by seven of 10 Americans.
“People are now seeing that I was right,” he said during the Columbus campaign stop.
Considered the most liberal candidate in the presidential race, if not in Congress, Kucinich also supports single-payer health care, full funding of preschool through college, the impeachment of Vice President Dick Cheney and gay marriage. If elected, he would establish a Department of Peace.
While those positions might be more mainstream in Europe, Kucinich won just 1 percent support in a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll of Democrats, compared to 45 percent for Sen. Hillary Clinton and 30 percent for Sen. Barack Obama.
Former Sen. John Edwards, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson and Sen. Joe Biden also outpolled Kucinich in the crowded race, while Sen. Chris Dodd matched Kucinich’s 1 percent support.
Still, analyst Alexander Lamis said Kucinich’s dogged presence in the campaign more than 15 months before the November 2008 election and frank criticism of his opponents’ platitudes has forced a higher level of debate.
“I’m sure he probably rankles some in the Democratic Party establishment, and ... the established press wants to put him in the ‘out-of-it’ category,” said Lamis, a political scientist at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. “But he’s probably got a lot more support than Biden and Dodd. He’s got a grass-roots network and somehow he gets a lot of visibility.”
But even the 50-some union voters who turned out to hear Kucinich in Columbus were busy debating whether Clinton or Obama would make the better president.
“I’m really between Hillary and Obama myself,” said John Johnson, 43, a maintenance worker at the Columbus airport. Co-workers Joe Wisniowski, 45, and Vincent Herriott, 42, agreed, with Wisniowski leaning toward Hillary and Herriott favoring Obama, but neither quite decided.
What about Kucinich, the only card-carrying union member in the Democratic field?
Few knew much about him, despite his 2004 presidential campaign, more than 10 years in Congress and a stint as mayor of Cleveland, another major Ohio city.
“I have some friends who support him,” custodian Mary Edwards, 41, said before Kucinich addressed the gathering. “They’re pretty far left.”
But two hours later, Edwards was nearly a believer.
“He said a lot, and he’s sincere, that’s what impressed me,” she said. “I may be supporting him after all.”
Kucinich’s concern for ordinary Americans has also pitted him against big business. He’s pledged to abolish the World Trade Organization and cancel the North American Free Trade Agreement — a position that’s hurt fund-raising efforts.
“Do you think I could stand up here and talk like this if I was owned by Wall Street? Not a chance,” he told his union audience to applause. As of June 30, Kucinich had raised just $1.1 million, a fraction of Clinton’s $62.5 million.
Kucinich shrugs off the tiny war chest, saying he doesn’t need “a phalanx” of consultants telling him what to think. His entourage in Columbus consisted of a driver and his third wife, Elizabeth, a tall British-born redhead who is 31 years his junior.
Fussing with Kucinich’s hair before he posed for photographs, Elizabeth said the low-budget campaign and low expectations serve her husband well and anyone who meets him will be won over.
“For us, everything just goes up,” she said.