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Democratic presidential aspirant Dennis Kucinich visited Austin on October 14 and discussed his opposition to the war in Iraq. About 300 people attended the rally, which raised about $3,300 for the candidate. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

There's no need to fear! Dennis Kucinich is here!

When Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich swept through the Hilton Airport Hotel in Austin last week, what should greet him but a copy of USA Today that lay on a table by the front doors. Emblazoned with a photo of Democratic frontrunner and Ronald Reagan supporter General Wesley Clark, the paper's front-page story also featured the results of an October 12 CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll of 1,004 adults, showing that only 3 percent of the 388 registered voters described as Democrat or Democratic-leaning were planning to vote for Kucinich. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points, meaning Kucinich could garner either 8 percent of the vote - moving him from dead last to the middle of the pack - or minus 2 percent, making him about as popular as Bob Graham, who has dropped out of the race.

Of course, if the poll had asked another group of registered Democrats, the outcome would have been different. Nearly that many people of voting age attended Kucinich's Austin campaign stop - one of five cities he visited that day, which started at 9 a.m. with a speech in Albuquerque and ended at 9:15 p.m. in Chicago - and many of them would tell you that surveys such as the one in USA Today are part of the problem with the mainstream coverage Kucinich has received. Instead of reporting on Kucinich's campaign platform, various news articles have characterized the 5-foot, 7-inch Kucinich as a Keebler Elf, portrayed his commitment to peace as a quixotic quest, or marveled at his veganism as if he were an exotic animal spotted in the Amazon Rain Forest.

So when Kucinich, 57, bounded into the overflowing Del Valle Room trailed by a mariachi band and a Travis County constable, he smiled and shook his supporters' outstretched hands with the energy and conviction of a man who has long been cast as an underdog - and thrives on it.

"We have to challenge Bush's march toward war," Kucinich proclaimed to the crowd, many of whom sat cross-legged on the floor in front of the stage. "We are at a new juncture in Congress: whether to approve $87 billion to continue the U.S. occupation for Iraq, to vote for a continued failed policy based on lies. Every Democrat voting for that policy is voting for one that separates Americans from the rest of the world."

Of all Kucinich's positions - his support of labor unions, universal health care, reproductive rights, civil liberties, and strong environmental regulations - none distances him as far from the rest of the Democratic contenders as his anti-corporation and anti-war stance. In Congress, where he has served in the House of Representatives since 1996, he has consistently bucked the U.S.' bellicose and imperialist bend, advocating that the U.S. pull out of NAFTA and the World Trade Organization, and sponsoring failed measures to ban space-based weapons and to establish a Department of Peace and Non-Violence.

"No privatization of oil," said Kucinich, dressed in a dark blue suit, red tie, and black shoes that matched his hair. "The United Nations will handle all of the oil assets on behalf of the Iraqi people until the people of Iraq can handle their own affairs."

"That's right," echoed several of his flock, as if testifying under a gospel tent.

"The U.N. will handle the contracts; no more Haliburton sweetheart deals," he proclaimed. "No more war profiteering."

"That's right."

"We cannot let this adminstration establish a puppet government in Iraq," he continued. "We can change the direction, but the only way to meet the challenge of peace is that we can't go it alone. We can't be the policemen of the world and establish an American empire. My presidency will be about changing all that. The cause of peace sounds abstract, but peace is profound and connects us to a deeper yearning. Peace is practical."

Kucinich's rise to power has been operatic. The son of a truck driver, Kucinich lived in 21 different places by the time he was 17, including periods when he and his family had to live in a car. At 23, he won a seat on Cleveland's City Council; and in 1977, when the 31-year-old was elected mayor of Cleveland, he became the youngest mayor of a major city in American history. In 1978, when a private corporation wanted to take over the city's public utility, Kucinich refused to allow it to be privatizated, an idea so unpopular at the time that he had to wear a bullet-proof vest to throw out the first pitch at a Cleveland Indians game. His decision cost him the re-election. Twenty-five years later, post-Enron, history has absolved him. Kucinich, once villified, is now being heralded as the Amazing Carnac.

Much like his opposition to privatization was once considered outlandish, his opposition to the war and to corporate America is also seen by his detractors as unrealistic. His criticisms of corporate America have cost him campaign funds that his fellow Dems are only too happy to rake in: Kucinich's contributions have totalled $3.4 million in three months, while Wesley Clark raised that much in 30 days, primarily from lawyers. Howard Dean, whose big donors include Time Warner and Microsoft, has received $25 million, and the majority of Senator John Kerry's $19.9 million also has come from large law firms. (All these figures are dwarfed by the $84 million in the coffers of President Bush, who will run unopposed in the primary.)

Yet, for his supporters - many Greens, disenfranchised leftists from the Dems, and new, young voters - Kucinich's grassroots appeal lies in his bold ideas: that radical change is not only possible, but also essential if anyone but the corporate moguls can survive the next 50 years.

"We're fighting money, but we have the power within us," said one of his supporters. "It is word-of-mouth we're passing along here."

While the Austin audience was predominantly white - the only Latinas were two Hilton Hotel housekeepers who watched Kucinich on a screen that had been set up in an adjoining room to accomodate the overflowing crowd - there was a great range in age: There were retirees stroking $20 checks, 30-somethings with babies in tow, University of Texas students with bulging backpacks, and a man in his early 20s wearing a black suit jacket, its narrow lapels plastered with pins Kucinich - and one of Elvis Costello.

After about 25 minutes, Kucinich had to catch a plane for Oklahoma City. He answered a few questions for the TV cameras, then scampered past the campaign table decorated with pictures of him posing with supporter Willie Nelson, past the two glass jars overflowing with 50s, 20s, and 10s, past the stack of newspapers featuring Wesley Clark, to an awaiting car. •

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