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Kucinich: fervently unconventional

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / January 2, 2004


Dressed in a long black overcoat, looking a little like a wizened wizard from the snowy New Hampshire woods, Dennis Kucinich strides confidently into a chilly toolshed at Derek Owen's 200-acre organic farm. As he stops to survey the 30 or so locals who have come to hear him speak, he grins: These are his people.

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There's Mr. Owen - his gray mutton-chop beard still flecked with snow - holding dirty yellow work gloves as he extends his greeting. His green cap, stuck with a feather, reads, "Farm Here to Eternity." Over there, in the corner, is Mark Lathrop, the burly proprietor of the Monadnock Hemporium, wearing a broad-brimmed leather cowboy hat. He's a fierce advocate for the decriminalization of marijuana. Opposite him, near the door, stands Elizabeth Obelenus, smiling. She's the tall office manager for the Northeast Organic Farming Association, the informal sponsor of the talk tonight, and she's most worried about the unknown dangers of genetically modified organisms.

They're all applauding. "Good job last night!" says one of an older couple near the pegboard on the wall. "You were our hero!" the other adds. As the diminutive Cleveland congressman shakes their hands and nods, he tells them he's been hearing the same all day. He'd created a bit of a buzz the night before after lashing out at Ted Koppel, the moderator of the debate in nearby Concord, and scolding him for focusing on polls and endorsements rather than important issues.

Like his nonconformist audience this evening, Mr. Kucinich is a candidate with quirks. A strict vegan, he would hardly be the type to throw a Crawford, Texas, barbecue. A skilled ventriloquist, he keeps a dummy in his office to entertain school kids who visit him on field trips. Twice divorced, he recently went on an early-morning blind date with a woman who had beaten out 79 others in a "Who Wants to Be a First Lady" contest, put on by the website

And though he comes from the Rust Belt shores of Lake Erie, he often speaks more as a New England transcendentalist, straight from Walden Pond. "We need to be certain that we have agricultural policies that are rooted in a philosophy which connects us to the power of nature itself," Kucinich tells the bundled-up country folk gathered in the shed. "We need to recognize the important role agriculture plays - like Derek's cap says, 'Farm Here to Eternity.' "

One of his top priorities as president, he explains, would be to break up the big corporations that control the food supply and threaten the small farmers who have long been the foundation of American democracy. In the same 19th-century vein, Kucinich often urges his audiences to read Emerson's "Self-Reliance," an essay he says he's read at least once a year since he was a boy. "Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string," he often quotes. "To believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, - that is genius."

Nonconformists, however, are by definition few and far between, and Kucinich is near the bottom of the polls. Beyond this band of pastoral farmers, few have even heard of Dennis Kucinich - "Is he the one with the ears?"

Yet it's become a refrain as he travels the well-worn New Hampshire campaign trail: When people do hear him speak, many admire his passion and "spin free" fervor. As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Kucinich has been one of the most outspoken liberal voices in the Democratic Party. Since he stakes out positions that a more cautious candidate might consider, well, politically eccentric, some voters find him both curious and refreshing - though they think he cannot win. "The others, they're all so boring - except for Kucinich," says Ms. Obelenus. "Sure, he's a long shot, but at first you've got to vote on principle, don't you?" But then, hesitating, she asks with a worried tone, "Do you think I'm throwing away my vote?"