As the candidate for president of the United States stepped onto the stage, flashing a smile and a wave, the audience exploded with cheers and applause and screams worthy of Beatles fans.
This went on for several minutes. Even the candidate was a little taken back. It was as though he had already won the election.
Which, of course, he had. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) came to the Moorestown Friends School on Friday afternoon to thank the students for making him the landslide winner in their mock presidential primary. (Al Sharpton had come in second.) It was a magnanimous gesture amid a busy schedule. Kucinich, the only Democrat besides Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) left in the race, is still campaigning as though he were a viable candidate, sort of.
He crisscrossed the country, as he has done for months, campaigning in Montana, then here in New Jersey, then back in Montana before these two states hold the nation's final primaries Tuesday. Kucinich has seemed determined to visit places most candidates would ignore as not rich enough in potential voters.
In between trips to New Jersey (where he spent two hours at the kindergarten-through-12th-grade Friends School) and Montana, he was scheduled to join Jesse L. Jackson in Pittsburgh on Sunday for the kickoff of a bus tour through parts of economically depressed Appalachia.
For several months, Kucinich has made it a point to visit some of the most forgotten corners of the country -- public housing complexes, down-and-out main streets and the like -- to call attention to poverty, which he calls "a weapon of mass destruction." At each turn, he launches into lengthy discussions on the need to pull out of Iraq, the invasion of which he voted against, and his proposals for a Cabinet-level "Department of Peace," which would apply Gandhian principles to curbing violence, both domestic and global.
Until May, Kucinich's campaign gained little traction. He had won 40 delegates to the Democratic National Convention, out of 4,322. Kerry had won enough delegates by early March to secure the nomination. But after the primaries and caucuses in Maine, Colorado, Alaska and Oregon, Kucinich suddenly had 70 delegates.
In Missoula, Mont., late last month, he spoke at a jampacked theater. The audience greeted him with a standing ovation. The television talk shows, which had all but ignored him all year, have started calling. The campaign hopes to go into the convention with about 80 delegates, after the last primaries are counted.
Kucinich is hoping that those delegates will help give him a platform on which to discuss why the country should leave Iraq, and how. "This is why I've stayed in the race," he said, talking to reporters after his meeting here with the students. "I hadn't planned on running for president until I saw this president launch headlong into war. I knew it was wrong from the beginning."
At the Quaker Friends School, that message resonated loud and clear. Kucinich gave his classic stump speech on how a Department of Peace could be used for everything from stemming spousal abuse ("It would help young men look at their attitudes about women") to racial discrimination ("It would start a whole new discussion on racial violence") to preventing war ("The preconditions for war come about because of the widespread acceptance of the inevitability of war").
Throughout Kucinich's half-hour presentation, the students remained attentive, even rapt. When he answered questions later about reconciling being a Roman Catholic and supporting abortion rights, and defending the rights of gay men and lesbians to marry, the audience applauded loudly.
When the 12th grade began its mock primary season, Kucinich was not even in the race. Neither was Kerry nor Sen. John Edwards (N.C.).
Two sophomores, Ben Spielberg and Ben Jones, both 15, and a senior, Mike Borden, 18, heard of the slight and crashed their way into the mock campaign.
"This is so exciting," Borden said, after he and a few others on the school's Kucinich campaign got to meet privately with the real candidate.
Borden had shown Kucinich a campaign video he created. "I missed a day of school to do it," he confessed sheepishly. He was still awestruck by the candidate's compliments.
"I registered to vote and put my name on a petition to get him on the ballot," Borden said.
Students mobbed the candidate after his talk. He autographed a boy's arm cast, a girl's notebook, pieces of paper. He grinned for photos, indulging what seemed an endless line of students waiting to shake his hand.
"I did it! I shook Kucinich's hand!" a girl squealed.
Finally, teachers told the students that enough was enough and that they would be late for class. The candidate for president of the United States did not budge. "I'm so sorry I have to leave," he said. It was obvious he meant it.