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Undeterred, Kucinich keeps on

HOOKSETT, N.H. -- Dennis J. Kucinich was a picture of patience.

His minivan had hurtled down the highways to get him to the Local 131 union hall in time to fire up rallying workers, the Ohio congressman's bread and butter. But now here he was, standing around in a small office, precious minutes of a jammed, 14-hour day slipping away. Howard Dean, his rival and the front-runner for the Democrats' nomination, was somewhere in the building, and Dean would speak first.

"That's OK," said Kucinich, as his aides grew agitated. "Not a problem. He may have arrived before us."

Finally, after Dean was done, and the MC acknowledged all the local politicians present, Kucinich was introduced. Suddenly, the slight, polite, New-Agey candidate was transformed into a firebrand, the card-carrying son of the Cleveland working class, and a mortal enemy of NAFTA.

"Everyone's for workers' rights at election time," he said, to cheers. "When I'm elected president, it will be a workers' White House!"

Kucinich brought the house down; the workers hooted for him more loudly than they had for Dean. But few beyond the room would hear them: The TV cameras had left with the former Vermont governor.

So goes the long-shot presidential campaign of Kucinich, a campaign conducted mostly under the radar, and with the aid of unmarked minivans, fortuitous spurts of publicity, and enthusiasts willing to scare up lunch for the candidate.

Pulling single digits in polls -- as in 1 percent -- he has struggled for funds and attention.

Yet, among those who gather to hear him, Kucinich inspires enormous enthusiasm. He attracts the true believers who were devoted to Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, but are looking for an alternative within the Democratic Party. In Kucinich -- a vehement opponent of the war in Iraq, a critic of the mainstream media, and a fervent advocate of free education, single-payer health care, workers' rights, environmental protections, and legalized marijuana -- they have him. The man is even a vegan.

"I'm urging Democrats to vote for him in primaries everywhere," said Nader, who has known Kucinich for 25 years and has not ruled out his own run for the presidency. "The Democratic Party has a genuine, authentic progressive. Let's see how they react to him."

On a recent Tuesday, Kucinich sat in the back of his moving minivan, devouring a large gift-box of vegan food -- a giant wrap with avocado and sprouts, tomato and bean soup, a banana nut muffin, shards of vegan chocolate cookies, a cup of hot water -- and weighing his presidential prospects.

The four-term congressman, 57, is small-framed, with dark hair, and a gnarled boyishness that makes it easy to picture him in his hardscrabble youth. He is not unrealistic about his chances of winning the Democratic presidential nomination. He gives himself odds of 26 to 1. The thing is, he says, he can beat them.

"I'm kind of like the Seabiscuit of the 2004 election," he said, using a well-worn line. "No one's really looking for me to do much, but I've been around the track a few times, and I run well on a sloppy track."

Most analysts agree that Kucinich will need more than a sloppy track to overcome those long odds at this stage.

Yet on he plods, mostly chipper, and driven: by ambition, by a conviction that someone should be giving voice to his beliefs, by his devoted supporters, and by a life that has frequently laid him low enough to make this whole quixotic presidential run look like a walk in the park.

The script for his childhood, Kucinich said, could have been written by Woody Allen and Charles Dickens. His father, a Croatian truck driver, was often out of work, Kucinich said, and his Irish mother, who had seven children, was overwhelmed trying to care for them.

The family never owned a home, living in 21 places before Kucinich, the eldest, was 17. Sometimes, they spent weeks at a time living in their car.

"My dad would take a bus to work, and we'd stay in the car," Kucinich recalled during his recent swing through New Hampshire. "During the day, my mom would send me down to the corner store to get a baby's bottle heated. God, I can't imagine."

His parents would sometimes lie, saying they had only two children, to get apartments: When landlords knocked, Kucinich and his siblings would hide in a closet, or flee out back and hide behind parked cars until the coast was clear. Still, there were plenty of evictions. Overwhelmed, his parents placed three of their children, including him, in an orphanage for a few months when he was 11 or 12.

"There was all this separation and isolation," he said, staring out at the road, pausing a long time. "It was a tough period."

His Catholic parents sent him to a series of parochial schools, where he earned book money by doing chores. He loved Catholic school, and on the trail, he quotes the Bible frequently.

But Kucinich said he does not practice any one religion now. He said he tries to "meditate in every moment" and often drops the kinds of expressions that would be right at home in the New Age books of Shirley MacLaine, an old friend, and godmother to his 22-year-old daughter: "My essential nature and my truth is one of optimism," he said.

At appearances, he steps right up to questioners, Oprah-style, standing inches from their faces, urging them, as he did at a recent visit to a Manchester high school, to "help this campaign repair America. Help it repair the world."

For most of his career, Kucinich opposed abortion rights. He changed his mind last year, after discussions with women, he said, not because he was thinking of running for president.

At 12, Kucinich shined men's shoes in uptown Cleveland bars for nickels and dimes. His own shoes were falling apart, the dye from the leather coloring his feet "slightly blue."

Still, he wasn't aware he was different from other kids until he earned enough money to buy a pair of pants from a local Salvation Army store. They were turquoise with black piping, "what the inmates' pants would look like at a psychedelic prison," he said. He wasn't a flashy kid, but they were the only pants he had, and they fit, he said. He wore them every day.

"After a while it became a subject of discussion, shall we say, and ridicule," he said. A nun put an end to the taunts, with two boxes of secondhand clothes.

He worked two jobs through college. He made his first, and unsuccessful, run for City Council in 1967, but won office two years later. In 1972, he ran for Congress and lost.

He was elected mayor of Cleveland in 1977, at age 31. He was the youngest major city mayor ever, and it showed. Marking his tenure was a brashness that alienated many of the city's power brokers.

After he fired the police chief in a way he now admits was "heavy-handed and graceless," his opponents launched a recall, which he narrowly beat.

The city found itself in default after a pugilistic Kucinich, supported by Nader, refused to privatize Cleveland's electricity utility, a decision for which he was excoriated. He lost reelection in 1979.

Some in Ohio have since praised his decision to stay with the utility, especially because Cleveland's residents saved millions of dollars. Others have called him one of the worst mayors in US history.

He spent the next four years wandering the country, staying with people he knew, scraping together money from pension funds and loans from friends, including MacLaine. Back on his feet, he reentered city politics in 1983 and gradually traded his way up to a seat in Congress in 1996. His campaign literature featured a light bulb and the slogan, "Because he was right."

Because he beat long odds so many times before, Kucinich insists he can beat them now. At house parties and college meetings, voters who wouldn't dream of voting for Nader this time agree with the congressman.

"I think he's what America needs," said Melissa Brothers, 27, who voted for Nader in 2000, and was among about 70 people who went to hear Kucinich recently at Plymouth State College in New Hampshire, where he got a standing ovation.

Gary Walker, 54, a mason who attended the same event, also voted for Nader in 2000. "I'm a dirty rotten liberal, and Kucinich is the only candidate I see that is progressive on all the issues," said Walker. "He's the one candidate that will stand up to the big corporate interests running the country down the tubes."

"It seems to be going around in an underground fashion that he speaks for people like me and my friends. I'm glad he's out there," said Laurie Sargent, a musician from Hopkinton, N.H., who attended a reception for Kucinich at an organic farm there called Erdenheim.

"I just reread your book, and I tried to find something I disagreed with, and I couldn't find anything," Howard Taylor, 66, a retired consultant, and a peace activist, told Kucinich at a recent house party in Rumney, N.H.

"He's dealing with the systemic issues of our society, and none of the rest of them are," Taylor said later.

One of the party's hosts, Dr. Marcosa Santiago, said the guests stayed long after Kucinich left, to talk about "our dismay about how could some people be so blind or so deaf that they cannot see the virtue of this man."

Still, the candidate remains stubbornly chipper most of the time. En route to a television interview in Manchester recently, Kucinich, surrounded by aides, including deputy campaign manager Paul Costanzo, was happy.

He was having a good week: He had scolded ABC anchor Ted Koppel for asking too many questions about endorsements and polls in a debate, and had gotten national exposure, including unlikely praise from conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh.

A twice-divorced bachelor, he had participated in an Internet competition to find himself a potential first lady. He won a date, though the woman had a live-in boyfriend, and another spurt of attention.

As his cheap minivan pulled into a parking lot, Kucinich spied a CNN bus, a handsome red-white-and-blue behemoth emblazoned with the network's logo. His eyes lit up.

"We could get a bus like that!" he said. "Let's get a bus like that! Paul, make a note of that."

Yvonne Abraham can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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