Tuesday, July 15, 2003

The vegan, peacenik, populist, progressive ventriloquist who wants to be president has the support of a motley group that could ultimately raise his profile and vex his rivals.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich has been endorsed by actors Ed Asner, Eric Roberts, Hector Elizondo and Elliott Gould; country singer Willie Nelson, ice cream baron Ben Cohen, writer Studs Turkel and California protestor-turned-politician Tom Hayden.

Ralph Nader has urged his followers to vote for the Ohio Democrat.

The four-term congressman is lauded by feminists, animal rights activists, antiwar protestors, environmentalists, spiritual healers, artists, human rights advocates and farmers who stubbornly look to the former Cleveland mayor and occasional amateur ventriloquist as the long-shot candidate of their dreams.

“Congressman Kucinich is a distinct alternative to the current administration, who resonates with voters and the community of feminists, peace activists, music legends and celebrities,” said his spokesman Doug Gordon yesterday.

“This kind of diversity is what makes America great,” he added.

Ron Faucheux, editor of Campaigns and Elections Magazines, dismisses Mr. Kucinich’s impact on the presidential landscape.

“I don’t consider him viable. I don’t think he’s going anywhere,” Mr. Faucheux said yesterday. “Sometimes there are fringe candidates who push others to the left or right in a campaign. But not this time. I don’t think the major candidates will let him set any agendas.”

Mr. Kucinich courts the unorthodox — convinced he can snare disaffected third-party voters, former Nader supporters and “Reagan Democrats” by riling up the anger of the Democratic base. He is against war, the Pentagon and the death penalty; he pines for gun control, universal health care and increased unemployment benefits.

“This government is run like a cartel,” he told an audience in Santa Fe recently. “The government is being run as a racket. Why should there be no impeachment? I’ll give you two words: Dick Cheney.”

His snarling plays well among some celebrities.

“He stands up for heartland Americans,” Willie Nelson said in a statement. “I normally do not get involved with politics. But this is more about getting involved with America.”

Mr. Cohen — the “Ben” in Ben & Jerry’s — said last week, “Dennis Kucinich advocates changing the way our government is run in order to reflect the values of America’s people,” but added his endorsement did not include an “ice cream flavor named Kucinich Kreme.”

The Vermont-based company, however, offers a “Maple Powered Howard” flavor in some stores, named for Howard Dean, another of the nine Democratic hopefuls for the president.

Mr. Kucinich, meanwhile, can use some star power. Recent polls reveal that voters don’t know who he is.

A Fox News survey taken in June found that only 9 percent thought Mr. Kucinich objectionable; 70 percent had “never heard of him.” A recent Zogby poll had similar findings: 6 percent opposed him while 75 percent were “not familiar” with Mr. Kucinich.

He is doggedly on the campaign trail, traveling to California, New Mexico and Iowa. Mr. Kucinich has raised $1.7 million in campaign funds this year, and spent less than half of it, addressing outdoor crowds in his shirt sleeves and playing for blue-collar appeal.

He describes his thrifty campaign as pure “grass roots” with thousands of volunteers, three field offices and five more in the works. He is getting some intriguing press in the process.

“Kucinich spices up Democratic race,” MSNBC reported Monday, adding that his left-wing persuasion had “the potential to give Dean headaches.”

The Los Angeles Times said “the onetime boy mayor of Cleveland is still a maverick after all these years and proudly wears the liberal label.”

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