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Oregon Primary May Be Last Stand for Kucinich

Times Staff Writer

Dennis J. Kucinich doesn’t believe in conventional wisdom.

Especially the kind that says with Sen. John F. Kerry as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, it’s time for Kucinich to head home.

Kerry’s nomination has been a foregone conclusion since early March. But that hasn’t stopped Kucinich from spending 16-hour days zipping through the lush river gorges and mountain passes of Oregon to campaign for votes.

The Ohio congressman has been canvassing the state in a monthlong blitz leading up to Oregon’s presidential primary on Tuesday. The contest may be Kucinich’s best shot to put his liberal imprint on the Democratic Party’s platform.

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Kucinich said he had acknowledged that “the nomination was basically determined.” But as he munched on vegan marshmallows from the backseat of a minivan last week, he added, “I’m staying in it because the direction of the party hasn’t been determined.”

If Kucinich has his way, that direction will be hard left. The former “boy mayor” of Cleveland favors universal healthcare, gay marriage, more federal money for education, and above all, the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Oregon, whose Democratic voters often display a strong liberal bent, might be just the place for Kucinich’s antiwar message to find a foothold. It is also home to his campaign’s only staffed office besides the national headquarters in Ohio. And it is where he has spent $100,000 on television ads promoting his candidacy.

Some are listening.

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“To me, he represents a real opportunity for change ... the real voice of the people,” said Lloyd Moser, 59 a retired railroad repairman from The Dalles, a small town east of Portland, who came to hear Kucinich speak at the community’s civic auditorium. Cheering crowds of 50 to 150 frequently turn out to hear his detailed Iraq exit strategy and plans for publicly funded healthcare, with many Democrats saying they are frustrated by the Bush administration and uninspired by Kerry.

But whether such attitudes and Kucinich’s efforts can translate into a strong showing by him in Tuesday’s vote remains in doubt.

Kucinich has amassed only about three dozen of the more than 4,300 delegates headed for the Democratic National Convention in July. He needs to win 5% of the Oregon primary vote to earn any of the state’s 58 Democratic delegates. His strongest support came in March’s Hawaii and Alaska caucuses, in which he won roughly 26% of the votes.

Verne Tietjen, 94, a local newspaper columnist, said he was attracted by Kucinich’s unabashedly liberal politics. Even so, he is undecided about who he will support in the primary.

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Hank Werne, 60, a child welfare worker in Pendleton, Ore., plans to back Kucinich because he thinks his policies are “a lot more concrete.”

Like many Kucinich fans, Werne then intends to vote for Kerry in the general election. Kerry, he said, “hasn’t been that impressive, [but] this is one year that a protest vote is just not in order.”

Indeed, interviews found that many of the Kucinich faithful plan to steer clear of Ralph Nader, the independent presidential candidate who won 5% of Oregon’s vote as the Green Party nominee in the 2000 general election.

“I adore Ralph Nader but I want to support the Democratic Party because I don’t feel right now ... that a third party is going to be a major challenge to the Bush administration,” said Judy Talley, 53, a family therapist and health food store owner from Pendleton

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A few have labeled Kucinich, like Nader, a Democratic spoiler. But, said Kucinich, the last thing he wants to do is siphon votes away from Kerry in the general election.

He has said he planned to support Kerry in the fall. In the meantime, his campaign hopes to bring 2,000 supporters to cheer Kucinich on at the national convention in Boston.

Winning delegates is central to why Kucinich and his supporters keep the campaign alive. As Bush and Kerry struggle to capture the narrowing margin of undecided voters, he is striving, he said, to light a fire in Kerry’s belly.

Kerry, Kucinich said, “needs help.”

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“He needs to be encouraged to take stronger and bolder stands,” Kucinich said. “It’s not like in sports where you can sit on a lead and figure you can wait out the clock. He’s going to have to be bold, challenge the [Bush] administration where they are most vulnerable -- and that’s the war ... politics as usual isn’t going to win this election.”

A skilled orator, Kucinich can command an audience’s attention with extemporaneous policy riffs. His speeches, which he tailors to each audience without notes, tend toward a stew of poetry, references to world religions and occasional mentions of his Croatian grandfather.

He’ll interrupt himself during an interview in his campaign van to marvel at the delicate whitecaps breaking on the gray-green Columbia River, whizzing by his window, and call his 22-year-old daughter, Jackie, to tell her how beautiful it all is.

“You know, if we don’t get a single vote, you can’t beat the scenery,” he says with a belly laugh.

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Pundits label him a political oddity, when they bother to mention him at all. But neither an indifferent press corps nor his grueling schedule can ruffle Kucinich’s Zenlike composure.

“I come from a spiritual perspective on this, seeing the world as one ... I guess you could say when that happens, there’s no exertion

Kucinich, who also favors withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, fears that the Democratic Party has diluted its message in its effort to attract moderate voters.

There’s a tendency among Democrats to try to “blur the differences on a whole range of issues,” said Kucinich, who has cited Kerry’s initial support of the Iraq war and the Patriot Act.

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“I think it’s really important to stake out clear differences.”

Actor Sean Penn, one of Kucinich’s most high-profile supporters, arrived in Portland last week to campaign for Kucinich, braving the clamoring crowds that clearly make him ill at ease.

Penn said he considered Kerry too much of an establishment figure. The Massachusetts senator “is maintaining a solid inch of difference from his opponent in the Republican Party,” Penn said at a Portland house party for campaign volunteers Tuesday.

Kucinich’s challenge to conventional politics is what gets him out of bed every morning, eager to explain to anyone who will listen just why they should give peace a chance.

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“I’ve been ready every day to be an overnight success,” he said with a laugh.


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