The temperature has dropped to 4 below, and the vast campus of Iowa State University is a snowy, sullen ghost town. Professors and students alike are away on winter break. It is not a promising time or place to drum up votes.
Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich does not seem to notice, or care. Arriving late, a two-aide entourage in support, the little-known Democrat from Ohio starts firing away the moment he hits the overheated basement meeting room of the Collegiate United Methodist Church.
"This campaign has picked up a lot of momentum!" he declares enthusiastically to the crowd of about 85.
Kucinich then proceeds to list the particulars of what he calls his "holistic world view." If he were president, he says, he would replace U.S. troops in Iraq with U.N. troops -- within 90 days of taking office -- and pay reparations to Iraqi families. He would cut the Defense Department's budget by 15 percent and establish a Department of Peace. He would repeal the North American Free Trade Agreement and withdraw the United States from the World Trade Organization. He would fund universal health insurance, universal pre-kindergarten education and a "WPA-style" jobs program, in part by wiping out President Bush's tax cuts. He is unequivocally for gay marriage.
As becomes instantly clear as Kucinich traverses Iowa before Monday's first-in-the-nation Democratic caucuses, he, in many respects, is the Democrat for Democrats who would more likely vote for Ralph Nader than one of the leading contenders -- Howard Dean, John F. Kerry or Richard A. Gephardt.
It is easy to dismiss Kucinich as a sideshow, or even a flake, as media accounts of his candidacy often do. Kucinich, 57, has not helped counter his Rep. Moonbeam image much by his stunt of advertising for a wife while on the campaign trail, or by his recent gaffe of holding up a visual aid during a radio debate. For his campaign manager, he chose political neophyte Dorothy J. Maver, who is a "transformational kinesiologist," or New Age healing therapist.
What's more, Kucinich has a habit of sprinkling his conversation with such enigmatic statements as "I understand that the power of hope is conceptive" and "You have to implicate your principles and recognize another reality out there."
By any measure, Kucinich is a long shot. Recent polls in Iowa have him capturing about 3 percent of likely caucus-goers. Still, Kucinich projects an earnest self-confidence and doggedness. He seems genuinely energized by speaking to crowds and meeting voters. After his speech here, he stayed to chat and shake hands for 45 minutes, bidding people into the night with a sincere "Thanks for coming."
Kucinich says the media have ignored and trivialized his bid. He points out that he has raised $3.4 million to date, almost all of it in small donations, including $120,000 at a Willie Nelson-Bonnie Raitt concert on Jan. 3 (Kucinich can also count the endorsement of such celebrities as author Alice Walker and actors Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Ed Asner and Linda Blair). He will soon receive several million more in federal matching funds, enabling him to keep running, he says, "until the convention."
"We're going to be a $10 million campaign," he says, both delighted and a little surprised by the figure.
It is tempting to suggest that Kucinich is running for president because he has run out of other offices to seek. After a difficult childhood in Cleveland -- his family was so poor that he and his six siblings occasionally lived in a car -- Kucinich began the first of his many races at age 20, running for City Council (he turned 21 by Election Day). At 31, he became Cleveland's "boy mayor," though his administration quickly plunged into turmoil. Under his watch, the city defaulted on $15 million in loans as Kucinich battled plans to sell the city's public electric utility. He survived a recall election by 236 votes nine months into his first term. He did not get a second term.
Kucinich spent the next 15 years in, out of and around politics. He re-won a seat on the City Council in 1983 but failed in subsequent bids for governor and Congress. He worked as a TV reporter, a radio talk show host and a lecturer. In 1982, his income totaled $38. Along the way, two marriages failed. He also became a vegan, eating a diet free of all animal products.
Around this time, he also began what he refers to as a "conversation with myself." Through a friendship with actress Shirley MacLaine (godmother of Kucinich's 22-year-old daughter, Jackie), Kucinich began studying at the Light Institute, outside Santa Fe, N.M. According to its Web site, the institute offers programs in "multi-incarnational exploration," including fire walks and "cranials," a "transformational technique" that dissolves "accumulated karmic and emotionally crystallized blockages."
The institute's director, Chris Griscom, has remained a friend and counselor over the years. Griscom praises Kucinich's "holographic vision" and describes his political ambitions in almost cosmic terms. "We've always been involved in teaching people to find their inner voice and their own vision and to not be swayed by the multiple realities out there," she says. "Dennis always saw the American eagle and the flag and the White House. It was always entrenched in him."
After a series of losing runs for Congress, Kucinich began his political comeback in 1994, when he won a seat in the Ohio Senate (using as his springboard his mayoral battle to keep the now-thriving utility in public hands). Two years later, he defeated Martin Hoke, the Republican incumbent, to win his seat in Congress in his fifth run at the job ("The lesson," he says, "was if at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try again"). He has been reelected three times.
Asked how many campaigns he has run, Kucinich pauses and asks to borrow a reporter's pen and pad. He then spends the next five minutes in silence, meticulously creating from memory a list of every primary and general election he has been in for the past 35 years. Next to each year and office, he puts a "W" or an "L," depending on how he fared. Then he totes up the results: 28 W's, 7 L's.
Kucinich has not always been the progressive, blue-collar, New Age liberal who appears on the campaign trail. During his House terms, he supported a resolution calling for an investigation of President Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair (he voted against the articles of impeachment). He has voted for a constitutional amendment to ban the burning of the American flag. Until 18 months ago Kucinich was an opponent of abortion rights, but he now supports them, according to his campaign press secretary, David Swanson.
Some think Kucinich's presidential run is designed to boost his name recognition, that his real goal is to set himself up for a Senate race in 2006. But that is the sort of "cynicism and negativity" Kucinich says he deplores.
"What's happening is this campaign is starting to catch fire," he says in the church basement, now all but deserted. "You can see it. As this campaign goes on, people will realize that I offer a real choice. And it's a long race."
At this, an aide hands him his overcoat and Kucinich walks out into the starry, frozen night. He climbs into a waiting minivan, the only car in his campaign caravan.