Image: Presedential Candidates Forum
Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, addresses the NOW presidential contenders forum in July.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com

Is Democratic presidential contender Rep. Dennis Kucinich more of a blessing or a curse for his rival Howard Dean? Taking stands to the left of Dean, who many strategists now deem the front-runner for the party’s nomination, Kucinich wants to cut the Pentagon budget by $60 billion, scrap free trade accords such as NAFTA, abolish the death penalty, and squelch private-sector insurance and pharmaceutical firms, squeezing them out with government-run entities.

Kucinich's views may make Dean appear moderate by comparison.

That would help the former Vermont governor since some in the news media and in rival campaigns have called Dean “too far left” to be able to beat President Bush in the general election.

‘SHARPEST CONTRAST’

But on the other hand there’s a part of the Democratic electorate that hungers for more than Dean can deliver in terms of anti-globalization, anti-death penalty and anti-Pentagon rhetoric.

Kucinich wins the support of many in that wing of the party because his anti-globalist, anti-war critique is undiluted, or as Kucinich put it in an interview with MSNBC.com in his Capitol office Friday, “My candidacy offers the sharpest contrast to this administration.”

Reeling off his stands in a speech to the National Organization for Women convention in Arlington, Va. Friday night, Kucinich proclaimed, “I’m from the universal-health-care wing of the Democratic Party. I’m from the Roe v. Wade-litmus-test wing of the Democratic Party. I’m from the abolish-the-death-penalty wing of the Democratic Party.... I’m from the gun-control wing of the Democratic Party.”

Then Dean got up and wryly told the crowd, “I’m from the let’s-beat-George-Bush wing of the Democratic Party,” — implying that Kucinich’s views, not Dean’s, are way too left.

Dean joked, “Maybe the press will stop writing that I’m too liberal to get elected” after hearing Kucinich and Rev. Al Sharpton speak at the NOW forum.

With the battle for the Democratic nomination intensifying after Labor Day, Kucinich has not yet shown an instinct to go for Dean’s jugular, mostly content to contrast his views with Dean’s and let voters draw their own conclusions.

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CUT PENTAGON SPENDING

Kucinich proposes cutting the military budget, slashing outlays for space-based weapons, the missile defense program, the F-22 fighter, the V-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and “wasteful spending” throughout the Defense Department.

Kucinich’s proposed cuts — amounting to $60 billion or about 15 percent of current Pentagon outlays — would be used to help pay for pre-kindergarten care for all children age three to five and a government-run health insurance program covering all Americans.

Dean has said “I don’t agree with Dennis about cutting the Pentagon budget when we’re in the middle of a difficulty with terror attacks.”

The Dean-Kucinich clash on military spending “is bound to have a powerful effect on the race,” Kucinich said.

As for the U.S. predicament in Iraq, Kucinich said, “I am absolutely opposed to sending more troops to Iraq because our men and women there are targets right now because of the enmity toward the United States over the bombing and the occupation.”

The four-term Ohio congressman said, “we must plan for an exit strategy,” laying the groundwork for withdrawal of U.S. troops by persuading the United Nations to send in peace-keeping forces.

Kucinich’s admirers say his refusal to sand the edges off his views is what makes him so genuine and worth supporting.

Take, for instance, his proposal for the government to take over medical insurance. “The private market has failed,” he said. The government should “cover everyone. No premiums, no co-pays, no deductibles... (it should) fully cover all health care needs.”

Likewise with the pharmaceutical industry. Kucinich has proposed federally-owned laboratories and factories to develop and manufacture pharmaceuticals. Firms such as Merck and Pfizer would be forced to compete with the U.S. government — which at the same time would be regulating them through the Food and Drug Administration.

“It would the encourage the private sector to bring their products to market in a way that would benefit the public,” explained Kucinich.

‘THE MOST PROGRESSIVE’

Bob Fertik, co-founder of grassroots online Democratic group called Democrats.com, said, “I support Dennis Kucinich because he is the most progressive candidate in the race, who will fight hardest to reverse the radical right-wing policies of the Bush administration.”

Fertik praised Kucinich for “standing up to powerful corporations when they abuse their power, as they did when he was mayor of Cleveland and the banks demanded he privatize Municipal Power and Light.”

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the only member of Congress so far to endorse Kucinich, told MSNBC.com in an interview, “they love him here in Marin and Sonoma County” in northern California. “If my district were the nation, Dennis could definitely win.”

While Woolsey acknowledged that views of Americans in other parts of the country aren’t like those of people in Marin and Sonoma, she said, “I wish middle America would be more attentive to the views of northern California.”

WHITHER THE NADER VOTERS?

Kucinich has the potential to give Dean headaches. If Dean doesn’t hew to the left, at least on some issues, he risks losing some left-wing voters to Kucinich. These voters who had abandoned the Democratic Party are the ones Dean claims to be bringing back into it. Many of them voted for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader in 2000, when he won nearly 3 million votes.

Where will those voters migrate next year? Will they vote for Dean in the primaries? Or will they choose the more ideologically compatible Kucinich?

Nader — while not foreclosing the possibility of running himself in 2004 — has been pointed in his criticism of Dean.

“If you look at his record as governor, it’s a pretty mediocre record,” Nader recently said. “Someone said in Vermont that he’s the originator of the triangulation — part Republican, part Democrat. Very, very obeisant to corporate power up there.”

Nader also said last week that if support for Kucinich grew, he would have “less reason to go into the election.”

“Our campaign is probably growing at a faster rate than anybody’s in terms of where we started and where we are now,” Kucinich said. “The rate of our fund-raising growth is faster than anybody’s.”

Despite this, Kucinich raised only about $1 million in the second quarter of the year, compared to the $7.5 million Dean raised.

Kucinich said his campaign has offices in California, Ohio and Iowa and is soon to open offices in Arizona, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, New Mexico, and Washington state, all of which have primaries or caucuses prior to March 3.

California’s primary could provide a revealing test of the Dean-Kucinich rivalry. The party’s rules award delegates to those who win at least 15 percent in any of the state’s congressional districts.

In left-leaning places such as Woolsey’s Sixth District or Rep. Barbara Lee’s Ninth District, Kucinich should fare well.

If he does well enough, he will slow Dean’s march toward the nomination.

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