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Dennis Kucinich, Still Waiting to Be Called On

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 28, 2004; Page C01


He knows that we know that he knows that we don't know why he is still running, and so here sits Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), all the way at the end of Larry King's temporary CNN conference table, under the now familiar heat of television wattage and mauvey election-year color schemes, on an auditorium stage at the University of Southern California for Thursday night's Democratic candidates debate.

He's been seated so far down there it's like someone forgot he was coming and had to get out an extra chair. In news photos, he looks blurry, obscured (and obscure), despite all his leftward clarity. Always smiling, with a set of translucent veneers, Kucinich is wearing a blue shirt and golden-hued necktie and a pinstripe suit with a tiny bit of schmutz on one of his jacket pockets.

Dennis Kucinich, left, and Al Sharpton try to draw some attention away from Sens. John Edwards and John Kerry during Thursday's debate in California. (Charles Krupa -- AP)

This goodwill and perseverance, the whole "Fear Ends, Hope Begins" stick-to-itiveness of Kucinich '04 turtledom works no charm on the cranky, frowny version of Larry King, who earlier was reportedly griping that all four remaining candidates were late. Several minutes into the debate, King peers down toward Kucinich's marginal world and, in the accusatory manner of a Donald Trump addressing an employee he thought he'd fired already: "Congressman Kucinich, why are you here?"

"I'm here," Kucinich says, "to provide the people of this country with a real choice in this election. Some of the differences that are here are stylistic. I'm offering substantive change in this country."

King then all but makes the blah-blah-blah motion with his hand: "But logically, it appears you're up against it. Why stay in?"

Kucinich: "Because I'm the voice for getting out of Iraq, for universal single-payer health care, for getting out of NAFTA and the WTO" -- some woo-hoos here from a swath of the 400 or so people in Bovard Auditorium -- "[and] for having our children go to college tuition-free, for saving Social Security from privitiz -- "

"But," King says, interrupting, "you can have that voice as a congressman . . . "

"In this race, though," Kucinich says, without a trace of annoyance and none of the strident frustration of the left, "there are real differences of opinion, Larry. And this is what this debate is about today."

Later, Kucinich talks about health care, and King looks around, beginning even to multi-task the papers in front of him, another moment in the "Nobody's Listening to Dennis Kucinich Show." Kucinich has so many issues to talk about, with force and clarity, and when he does, people put their minds on screen-saver. (Even in the media room, a giant, old basketball gymnasium filled with dozens of reporters tickety-tapping, there is a discernible cessation of journalism and an increase in snackage whenever it's Kucinich's turn to answer.) "There's a direct connection between the lack of health insurance in this country and the control which the insurance industry has over Washington," the congressman plods on. "Larry, in 2000 -- Larry?"

(Hello, Larry?) The crowd laughs. "I'm paying attention to you, Dennis," King snaps. "Dennis, I can hear and look over there at the same time."

"I don't want you to miss this because this is something that -- "

"It's an old Jewish trait," King weirdly asserts. "We can do two things at once."

"Let's not get ethnic," jokes Al Sharpton, who is never asked why he is here because everyone seems to know that reality shows and presidential campaigns desperately need sassy, funny, plain-talking minority figures for ratings.

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