Mayor Dennis J. Kucinich says he is the underdog in his bid for reelection, and polls confirm that he is far behind his challenger, Lt. Gov. George V. Voinovich.

Voters go to the polls today to choose between Kucinich, the fiery, self-styled populist and the soft-spoken, Republican Voinocich.

At stake is Democrat Kucinich's two-year experiment in urban populism, a power-to-the-people theory aimed at curbing the influence of big business in government.

Two television polls last week showed Voinovich having a commanding 5-to-3 lead with a 20-percent undercided factor. A Voinovich poll said he had 54 percent of the vote, compared with Kucinich's 34 percent. If Kucinich has taken a poll, he has not released it.

Kucinich said the reason he is in political trouble is that he "stepped on some big toes." Though insisting that his administration has performed well, he said the media, in a conspiracy with its corporate allies who advertise, have distored his record.

Voinovich, meanwhile, has run an "old-fashioned" campaign, making no promises except to "clean up the mess" that he says Kucinich has made with city services.

Voinovich said he will normalize relations with the business community, which has been at odds with Kucinich for two years.

"There will be a whole new tone at City Hall," Voinovich said. "It will be one of professionalism.We'll have a very businesslike atmosphere at City Hall. We'll run the city like the president of a corporation would run a corporation."

Though he is a Republican in a Democratic stronghold, Voinovich, a Slovenian, has parlayed his ethnic credentials into strong poltical support. Kucinich is a Croatian, and their campaign has symbolized the historic confrontations between those two rival Balkan groups.

Kucinich has been snubbed by the Democratic Party.

Even Vice President Mondale refused to endorse Kucinich during a recent visit, despite the importance of the Democratic northern-Ohio region to President Carter's reelection bid next year.

To narrow the gap between himself and Voinovich, Kucinich has turned to the city's black wards, which comprise 40 percent of the population. Kucinich is hoping to improve on his performance in the Oct. 2 primary, where he picked up only 15 percent of the black vote.

Kucinich persuaded former mayor Carl B. Stokes, now an NBC televison reporter in New York City, to endorse him in an attempt to rally black support.

The irony is that it was Kucinich, who as a councilman from a predominantly white westside ward a decade ago, helped Stokes into an early political grave with his bitter attacks against Stokes, the first black mayor of a major U.S. city.

Stokes, who has made a television commericial plugging Kucinich, has come under fire from the media because of his political activity.

"This flies in the face of what we've been told here for years," said Kenneth Bichl, local president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

"That is that NBC newspeople are forbidden to take an active part in political compaigns," he said.

Stokes said he justifies his political activity "the same way John Chancellor (Nbc Nightly News achorman) justified it when he left journalism and was the politically appointed head of the United States Information Service, where he turned out the propaganda of the United States, not always accurately."

Stokes and Chancelor have long been at odds. Chancellor was unavailable for comment.