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msnbc.com
updated 3/9/2004 8:23:29 AM ET 2004-03-09T13:23:29

MSNBC's Karin Caifa spent the past seven months as a reporter embedded with the campaign of Democratic presidential hopeful Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.


It’s no secret to anyone at MSNBC that last August I was less than pleased to find myself on the trail with Dennis Kucinich. An astute student of American politics, someone who reads National Journal the way most women my age read Cosmo, I felt this longshot was so not worthy of my journalistic abilities. I prepared to be searching for work again by October or November.


Karin Caifa

Instead I found myself embedded until March. Political reality be darned, Kucinich is still running hard. (Has he heard of this guy named “John Kerry”?) Before this week, he hadn’t taken a day off the trail since the Christmas holidays. (He’s currently sidelined with what the campaign calls “an intestinal ailment.”)

The campaign reported “record-breaking” fundraising -– about $160,000 in 36 hours -- last week following the Super Tuesday primaries and the departure of North Carolina Senator John Edwards from the race. Despite having only 18 delegates to his name, Kucinich has raised over $1.2 million this quarter and, unlike the Rev. Al Sharpton, the other longshot still hanging in the chase, is still reaping the benefits of federal matching funds (The campaign last week received a check for $229,000 from the FEC; they’ve collected over $3 million to date.)

A quixotic quest
“They can take you off the trail, but they can’t take me off the trail,” Kucinich replied when I gave him the news that I would no longer be following his campaign. I’m inclined to believe that the campaign minivan will indeed drive all the way to Boston, fueled by Kucinich’s dogged persistence or blatant insanity (I haven’t yet determined which.) But what the last year has lacked in political success, it's more than made up for in quirkiness. Despite the crowded Democratic field, which numbered ten at one point, the Kucinich campaign has always managed to maintain its flair for the outlandish and, sometimes, the outright bizarre.  I mean, no other candidate played “The Dating Game,” or had his own polka, or hung out with Willie Nelson.

Long ago this exercise in political futility crossed the threshold where it ceased to be a campaign and instead took on the characteristics of a movement. You often get the feeling that this bid would have fared better in the '60s. At a January rally in South Portland, Maine, Kucitizens sat in a darkened auditorium blissed out to the guitar strains of Tim Reynolds, a collaborator of Dave Matthews. Reynolds whipped out the lyrics of John Lennon and led the folks in a winter's night sing-along of "All You Need is Love."

From a few, fervid support
What astounded me the most, and sometimes outright frightened me (Hell hath no fury like a Kucinich supporter perceivably scorned by the media, particularly when you ARE the media), was the fervor of these folks. Perhaps I am hard-wired for objectivity, but I could never bring myself to drive cross-country -- or across continents -- to support any candidate.

A former journalist for the BBC pulled up outside Kucinich's Cleveland headquarters one sunny fall afternoon in a Mercedes Benz he'd driven all the way from Palo Alto, California -- completely powered by soybeans. The Democreation Project, a group of 15 twentysomethings in a psychedelic-painted '70s era school bus, tried to make it cross-country on soybean fuel as well. Unfortunately, the New Hampshire deep freeze, well, froze the fuel and the bus. Yumi Kikuchi packed up her husband and two young children and brought them to Iowa in January to stump for Kucinich… from Japan.

And then there’s the candidate. Unlike the larger campaigns with their press planes and buses where the fourth estate is separated from the candidate's domain with a magic curtain, I spent most of January cruising through Iowa or New Hampshire in a minivan, staring at the back of Kucinich's head or engaged in conversation with him. After all, I was the only member of the traveling press corps. Among the topics we discussed over the months: Johann Sebastian Bach, his job as a copy boy for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, why I shouldn’t drink so much caffeine, and the brief marriage of Britney Spears. He also repeatedly expressed admiration for my pink winter coat with the fur collar. Not your everyday reporter fare, but this was certainly not your everyday campaign.

Curiouser and curiouser
Kucinich's favorite book is "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" by Lewis Carroll, and the more this bid wears on, the more "curiouser and curiouser" it becomes. How long it will extend beyond this week or this month only Kucinich knows.

I’m interested to see what exactly he accomplishes, because somewhere along the way I began to embrace this little story, much like the wimpy little Christmas tree Charlie Brown brought home to the ridicule of his friends. Because “a guy who lived in 21 different places by the time he was 17, including a couple of cars,” running for leader of the free world, no matter what the odds, is an interesting story that deserves to be told and I am grateful that I was graced with the challenge to do it.

Sure, we all knew from the start this guy had no chance of winning the nomination. But the Kucinich campaign continues to keep their faith, and their interest in American politics, alive.  Maybe, in the truest spirit of a democracy, one that extends beyond pundits and polls, that's not such a bad thing.

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