Beating Kucinich to the base

SUMMARY: As candidates in the Democratic field aim to stand out on core party issues, they often find Rep. Dennis Kucinich was there first.

John Edwards says he was the first Democratic candidate to introduce a specific plan for universal health care.

Nope, that was Dennis Kucinich.

A TV ad for Bill Richardson said he's the only one to support complete withdrawal from Iraq. Nope, Dennis Kucinich does too. (Richardson later amended his claim to say he was the only major candidate to take the position.)

As the Democratic candidates address issues dear to their base, they often run into Kucinich, a Democratic congressman from Cleveland. If there's a leftmost position to take on an issue, odds are, he's already taken it.

"The disadvantage for candidates who want to position themselves to the left of Hillary Clinton is that he will always be lefter than thou," said David Birdsell, dean of Baruch College's School of Public Affairs in New York.

Kucinich is low in the polls, but he has a well-documented voting record and set out many of his positions during his first run for president in 2004. On Iraq, he voted in 2002 against authorizing force, the only one to do so among the Democratic candidates who voted on the war. He advocated universal health care during his 2004 campaign, when Edwards said universal coverage was too costly.

"He is left of the left. He defines the word, really," said David Cohen, a political science professor with the University of Akron who follows Kucinich. "He's not concerned with making his positions more palatable for the middle of America."

Still, political analysts say Kucinich's actual impact on the race is mixed at best, and nonexistent at worst.

"When you're the pioneer, you don't necessarily get the homestead, and that's what's happening to Mr. Kucinich," said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University in Washington, D.C. "The media doesn't take him seriously, and he's not a dynamic enough figure to change the campaign."

That's not to say Kucinich has always been as liberal as he is now. When he first went to Congress in 1998, he was a fairly consistent vote for the antiabortion movement.

His last antiabortion votes were in 2003, the year before he decided to run for president the first time. Kucinich said at the time that his thinking had evolved in light of Republicans' increasing efforts to overturn the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court ruling.

For the past two years, Kucinich has won 100 percent approval ratings from the left-leaning Americans for Democratic Action, a liberal advocacy group that ranks members of Congress.

"It was awhile before he came around to our point of view on choice," said David Card, the ADA's communications director. "But he did come around, and that's improved his ratings with us."

Kucinich also changed his mind on amending the Constitution to ban flag-burning. He had voted in favor of it, but in 2005 he started voting against it. At one time he opposed gay marriage, but now he supports it.

During a campaign forum in August 2007 hosted by the gay rights group Human Rights Campaign, Kucinich and a questioner engaged in the following exchange, to much laughter from the audience: Q: Congressman Kucinich, you're seemingly for everything the gay community wants. I took a look at your HRC questionnaire. You support, support, support, support, support. So is there anything that the (gay) community wants that you're against? There's got to be something.

Kucinich: All I can say is, keep those contributions coming, and you'll have the president that you want. Q: I'll take that as a "no."

Kucinich: That's a "no."

If Democratic candidates are hoping less prominent candidates will withdraw to clear the field, they may be waiting a long time on Kucinich. In 2004, he stayed in until right before the convention, saying he wanted to influence the party's agenda.

First, though, Kucinich faces primary challenges to hold on to his congressional seat in a heavily Democratic district. The most serious challenger at the moment is Rosemary Palmer, a former Kucinich supporter whose son died in the Iraq war. She says Kucinich's positions are too extreme to be effective.

That challenge — the primary is in March — may affect Kucinich's future in the presidential race.

"If he perceives he's in real trouble, he may drop out," said Cohen of the University of Akron. "If he doesn't, I see him staying in until the bitter end and asking for a prime-time speaking spot at the convention."