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Running With Dennis

One more Saturday soiree chez über-hosts Stanley Sheinbaum and Betty Warner and one more click on what is sure to be the long chain of White House 2004 fund-raisers. The one this past weekend celebrated one-time boy mayor of Cleveland and now Congressman Dennis Kucinich, the runaway presidential choice for self-described progressives. Several score of liberal L.A.’s usual suspects forked out a minimum $250 apiece at the invitation of Ed and Cindy Asner to munch on meatballs and shrimp and give a listen to the only Democratic candidate who voted against the Iraqi-war resolution (and one of only 12 who turned thumbs down on the $74 billion bill to pay for its first phase). U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson was in the crowd. So were the power couple of local labor, Miguel Contreras and Maria Elena Durazo.

The timing of all this, however, was not quite spot on. Kucinich’s steadfast demand that U.S. troops “get out of Baghdad and stay out” seemed somewhat out of sync coming on the same weekend that American tanks were nosing through the Iraqi capital and nudging Saddam’s regime toward its final precipice.

But not to worry. Kucinich, on two occasions, brought the crowd to its feet wildly clapping and cheering as if they were on a convention floor rather than in Stanley’s ample living room. And Kucinich, whose public speaking sometimes drifts toward the fuzzy and ethereal, let loose a relentless rhetorical attack on the Bush administration, so fiery that you wondered if all that expensive art hanging on the Sheinbaum walls might start smoking.

It made no difference how little sense a call for withdrawal of Yankee troops might make, or how unlikely such a development might be. The audience of yellow-dog Democrats has one major enemy in the world, and he’s from Texas — not Tikrit. “I’m the only Democrat running for president of the United States,” the congressman said firmly and loudly, “that, once the war started, went to the well of the House and demanded the war be immediately stopped.”

Asking of the current administration, “What is this love of death?,” Kucinich proceeded to lay out his own platform menu, which could be summed up as Thanksgiving dinner for progressives: national health care, withdrawal from NAFTA and the WTO, reversing the mountainous foreign-trade deficit, repeal of the Patriot Act, loosening of immigration regulations, publicly financed elections, support for the International Criminal Court (and for the Small Arms and Land Mines and Kyoto and Chemical and Biological Warfare treaties), total nuclear disarmament, and — for dessert — a Cabinet-level Department of Peace.

Kucinich has as much as already sewn up the hearts and minds of L.A.’s Westside activists, and that’s one reason why he is spending so much time out here so far from Cleveland. The Asners hosted their own fete of Kucinich a few months back in their Laurel Canyon home, and the congressman’s appearance schedule was jam-packed this weekend, culminating in a mid-Wilshire church rally that drew more than a thousand enthusiastic fans and supporters.

But for all this splashing inside the fishbowl of L.A. activism, the latest polls show Kucinich barely treading water in what are politely called the lower single digits. Yet on three occasions during his brief talk, Kucinch said he was in the race not as a symbolic candidate but rather “to win.”

Emphasizing how he has helped build the Democratic vote in his own district from 49 percent to over 70 percent, he said, “I’ve found I can get votes that other Democrats can’t and without compromising my progressive principles. In fact, I think that by holding fast and offering a real alternative is the way I actually win those votes.”

Kucinich’s rap, though, still seems more like a great program than a strategy. You mull it over, and you might say to yourself what Gandhi said when asked his opinion of Western civilization — “that it would be a good idea.”

Running a successful presidential campaign usually requires a year or two of advance work laying down a ground-level national network and organization. Never before has the primary cycle been so front-loaded, thereby making mountains of money and wall-to-wall name recognition more crucial than ever. Kucinich has little of either. He boasted that his Web site pulled in $100,000 in its first month. But professional political consultants estimate that for the 2004 election, major contenders will have to raise about $110,000 a day.

A people-power grassroots campaign can certainly eschew some, if not all, of the above. But that requires a strategy that would attract unindoctrinated millions into the current Kucinich camp of 2 percent. For starters, about half of polled Democrats say they are supporting the war Kucinich wants to stop. Neither Kucinich nor his supporters have yet come up with such a strategy as far as I can discern. And don’t ask me what that might be. I haven’t a clue either. But, then again, I’m not running for president.


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