By Greg Wright
Gannett News Service
WASHINGTON - Presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich is betting American disenchantment with a possible war in Iraq could catapult him to the White House.
"The message is that war is not inevitable," the Ohio Democratic congressman said in an interview. "The message is that this administration has not made its case for war."
Some political analysts say Kucinich's staunch anti-war views are not enough to set him apart from other Democratic candidates who oppose a war, such as former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. They say Kucinich's record, including a controversial switch on abortion and a tumultuous term as Cleveland's mayor in the late 1970s, could spoil any long-shot hopes he might have.
He is far less known than more prominent candidates, like Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.; and Sens. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and John Kerry, D-Mass.
And even in his home state, Kucinich is not top dog among Democratic candidates. Fourteen percent of Ohio Democratic and independent voters support him, compared to 19 percent for Lieberman and 16 percent for Gephardt, according to the University of Cincinnati's Ohio Poll released Friday.
Born: Oct. 6, 1946, in Cleveland.
Education: Attended Cleveland State University, 1967-70. Bachelor's degree in speech communications from Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, 1973; master's degree in communications sciences from Case Western Reserve University, 1974.
Family: Divorced, one child
Career: Cleveland City Council, 1970-75; municipal courts clerk, 1976-77; Cleveland mayor, 1977-79; radio talk show host, 1979; lecturer, 1980-83; consultant, 1986-94; television reporter, 1989-92; Ohio Senate, 1994-96; first elected to U.S. Congress in 1996.
Interesting fact: Kucinich, a vegetarian for eight years, has a sign in his office saying kielbasa, a Polish sausage, is a hallmark of civilization, along with polka and bowling.
But others say Kucinich, one of the first Democrats to publicly bash President Bush for pushing war against Iraq, could become a serious contender if an Iraq war drags on while the American economy tailspins.
"He (Kucinich) could run on the basis that it's a disastrous policy," said Ivan Eland, director of the Center on Peace and Liberty in Oakland, Calif. "Bush is in a lot weaker position than he thinks."
Kucinich, 56, who rebuilt his political career after a disastrous two years as Cleveland mayor, will announce formally whether he will run for president in June. In the meantime, he has formed an exploratory committee to assess his chances.
Kucinich said the billions of dollars Bush spends on tax cuts, many geared toward the wealthy, and waging war in Afghanistan and Iraq could be used to fix long-standing domestic problems, including making Social Security solvent and providing health insurance for 41 million uninsured Americans.
And Bush should use every diplomatic tool at his disposal before resorting to brute force to disarm Iraq, Kucinich said.
The Cleveland native already has campaigned in Iowa, host of the Democrats' first caucus Jan. 19, to take his stop-the-war and save-the-economy message to voters. But Kucinich admits he needs more donations. He said he had about $50,000 in his campaign war chest at the beginning of March and has not hired campaign staff.
Still, Kucinich has a populist appeal that could draw working-class voters and the disadvantaged, said James Kweder, a political science professor at Cleveland State University who has followed Kucinich's career.
However, Kweder doubts Kucinich's populist image will ignite national attention.
"The chances of Dennis Kucinich becoming president of the United States are slim to none," he said.
Eland said Kucinich could have a fighting chance, depending on Iraq. If the United States gets bogged down in war and the country slides again into recession, more voters could listen to his message, Eland said.
History shows this has happened before, Eland said. Several leaders - including former presidents Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and the senior George Bush - fell out of favor because of bad foreign policy decisions, bad economic decisions, or both.
Changes on abortion
However, one issue still could trip up Kucinich, said Ted Lewis, a spokesman for Global Exchange, a human-rights organization in San Francisco. After months of soul-searching, Kucinich, who was against abortion, announced earlier this year that he favored abortion rights.
Kucinich said he hopes Americans can reach a compromise on the issue. And he denies he switched his position on abortion to garner more support for a presidential run.
"Long before I became a candidate, these issues weighed on me," he said. "Is there a way to reconcile, to make abortions less necessary?"
Still, Lewis said he doesn't know how voters will react to Kucinich's change on abortion.
"I think it's certainly going to be an issue because Democratic primary voters who would be inclined to vote for Kucinich on anti-war (issues) would be hesitant, especially women, to vote for someone who has been so strongly anti-abortion," Lewis said.
"I was tempted to be cynical," about Kucinich changing his position on abortion, Lewis added. "But when I read what he said, I was impressed. It sounded like a genuine, personal evolution."
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