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Who are these guys?

By Keith Andrew Bettinger

WASHINGTON - "Isn't Kucinich supposed to be around here somewhere?" I asked an ABC News security guard at a scheduled rally location in Manchester, New Hampshire.

"Who?" asked the security guard.

"Dennis Kucinich."

"Who's he with?"

"He's a Democratic candidate for president from Ohio."

"Haven't seen him," replied the security guard, in one of those statements that speak volumes.

Dennis Kucinich, former mayor of Cleveland and congressman from Ohio, polled just over 1 percent in the New Hampshire primary and another 1 percent in the Iowa caucuses. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher from New York, fared even worse, earning 222 votes in all of New Hampshire. Joseph Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, earned 9 percent of the primary vote in New Hampshire after skipping Iowa to focus all his resources and attention on New Hampshire; he declared the results a "three-way tie for third" and pledged to soldier on.

Kucinich, Sharpton, and Carol Moseley Braun, who dropped out of the nomination race before Iowa, were never given even an outside chance to win the presidential nomination by anyone but their press officers, and Lieberman has not been anything more than a dark-horse long shot since serious campaigning began. What makes these candidates stay in the race, and what makes them run in the first place?

Despite the rhetoric and the campaigning, winning is not the prime objective for some of the candidates. Sure, Wes Clark, Howard Dean, John Edwards, Lieberman, and John Kerry are in it for the big prize, but "second tier" candidates frequently use the nomination process as a vehicle to achieve other ends. Jerry Mayer, professor of political science at George Mason University and author of several books on the US presidency, explains that "Kucinich and Sharpton are similar in that neither is in this to win the nomination."
Many candidates run to draw attention to an issue. If they can get enough media attention or stir up enough support, they can sometimes force the party to incorporate their issue stance into the platform or force the more mainstream candidates to tweak their own strategies. There are other, more selfish reasons, as well. Lawrence O'Rourke, a columnist for the Minnesota Star Tribune who is closely watching this year's field of dark horses, said: "Some run to get material for a book they will someday write about their lives in politics. Some run just to get a little attention and have some fun, but most discover it is hard work raising the money and traveling to keep up the campaign."

Candidates who run to draw attention to a particular cause or issue sometimes face an uphill battle. Mark McGuire, television/media columnist for the Hearst Newspapers group, said: "It's a tough decision for a media outlet to decide how much coverage a candidate deserves. Often we judge who gets airtime and print space based on viability." This year the Democrats seem to be paying more attention to the viability issue in their attempt to select the candidate with the best chance to beat President George W Bush. Since a candidate's electability is closely tied to his or her image as well as standing in the polls, people are not as likely to support sweeping platforms. "The problem with that is that we may be ignoring some important messages that deserved to be vetted and out in the public forum, so we may be missing something in the process," said McGuire.

The consensus among experts is that Kucinich is running to draw attention to one issue: his opposition to the Iraq war. Kucinich has the strongest anti-war credentials of the bunch he was co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus with California Democrat Nancy Pelosi (House minority leader), voting against the resolution to invade Iraq and helping to organize the 125 other House Democrats who opposed the measure. "He has risen as high as he can in Ohio politics. He will never be senator or governor, and he has nothing to lose," said Dr Mayer.

Speaking about his chances, Kucinich said: "I expect to go to the convention with a bloc of votes ... the bar's been set so low ... Most people are saying I'm not even a blip on the screen."

Though he has no chance, pundits agree that Kucinich, along with Dean, have made the mainstream candidates' support of the war resolution an issue; Kerry and Edwards have struggled to explain away their support for the resolutions authorizing the Iraq war. Kucinich is the only candidate to promise explicitly to withdraw US troops, but other candidates have been forced to craft plans to increase international involvement in the occupation.

So Kucinich can take some credit for altering the face of the nomination process, and he does raise some important points. He also favors abolishing the World Trade Organization and withdrawing from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These stands push the mainstream candidates to explain and define their own positions in specific terms with concrete programs, or at the very least to convince voters that while Kucinich's suggestions may sound attractive, they are not practical.
"He deserves a hearing of some form, and I do believe that he's gotten it to a certain extent," said McGuire, the Hearst Newspapers media columnist.

Kucinich's "Zen moments", overt spirituality, and popularity among the hippie set sometimes overshadow his issue focus, though. A strict vegan, Kucinich describes his politics as rooted in "a spiritual sense of the interconnectedness of the world". His home-town newspaper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, declared early in his campaign that he "is at risk of becoming tagged 'the Moonbeam Congressman'". No matter the outcome, though, Kucinich has become a kind of counter-culture celebrity, and will always be an effective spokesman for social-justice issues.

Sharpton's motivations are different. "Sharpton is running to become the de facto leader of black America," said Mayer. "He hopes to replace Jesse Jackson. The campaign is worth, ultimately, millions of dollars to Sharpton over the next 10 years. If he does well in South Carolina, and becomes the face of black America for many whites, he has speaking engagements and income for years."

The reverend has the quickest tongue in the field, and his one-liners make any debate interesting and all his appearances entertaining: "We got the down, but we didn't get the trickle," referring to the so-called trickle-down effect of "Reaganomics"; Howard Dean "is sounding more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson", referring to Dean's stance on affirmative action; and "We can't find [Osama] bin Laden? Bin Laden has more video than a rock star." Sharpton has said he will continue his campaign right up until the convention to raise awareness of black American interests, all but admitting to a crowd in Houston that he will lose: "There are six Democratic candidates who will lose. Don't act like I will be the only loser."

Sharpton's campaign will also buy him some influence in the Democratic Party; in the future he will be a useful asset in mobilizing the black vote, and his endorsement may translate into some input into political nominations.

Sharpton, Kucinich and Braun have all raised their profile with their campaigns. Before 2003, most people outside Ohio and Indiana probably had never heard of Dennis Kucinich or Carol Moseley Braun. Now the former is an instantly recognizable crusader against the war in Iraq, while the latter has become an icon and role model for women seeking careers in politics. Sharpton, who first rose to prominence during the Tawana Brawley affair (in which the New York teen claimed to have been the victim of a racially motivated kidnapping; Sharpton supported Brawley's claim, which was later shown to be a hoax), is shoring up his image as a black leader and becoming more palatable to whites.

All three candidates' campaigns were accepted and treated as equal by the Democratic Party. This ensures that the candidates will be able to participate in debates and other events, enabling them free exposure for their stances. In addition, one advantage to the not-running-to-win candidacy is that there is reduced fundraising pressure. Sharpton and Kucinich spend very little on television advertising and can operate their campaigns with skeleton staffs.

The crusader-type of candidate must walk a fine line between being the champion of an issue and pushing to its heart - and being labeled a "fringe candidate" who does not know when to quit. O'Rourke, the Minnesota newspaper columnist, points out that US political stories are often about the horse race itself, not about particular issues. An example of this is the media treatment of Howard Dean's performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. The focus has been on the fact that Dean was far ahead of the rest of the field in the polls just weeks before the elections, but suffered bitter defeats as other candidates surged. There are fewer stories about which issues people found important, and why there was a sudden sea-change in sentiment.

Kucinich, who has campaigned in every state, is rapidly becoming a footnote, his power to draw national media attention fading. It behooves a candidate like Kucinich to strike while the iron is hot, going on the offensive early while he still enjoys a respectable amount of coverage, so he can force his issue into the spotlight. US voters are fickle and easily bored. While Iowa demonstrated that the Dean-Kucinich opposition to the Iraq war only plays so long, Sharpton's gift for gab has helped him hold the spotlight.

As for Lieberman, most agree that his days are numbered on the campaign trail. "Unlike Kucinich and Sharpton, Lieberman has a future in higher office. He has a reputation to preserve. He's not going to stay in the race much longer," posits Mayer.

Syndicated columnist Richard Reeves adds that it's just a question of timing: "Lieberman is, or soon will be, searching for a dignified way out." Lieberman, who once pictured himself as the heir apparent to former vice president and failed presidential candidate Al Gore, suffered a serious setback when Gore endorsed Dean. Nevertheless, Lieberman, who has very strong political credentials and is well respected in Washington, has to think about his reputation and his future. "He could become some Democrat's secretary of state, or a smart Republican's cabinet officer." His centrist views and support for the Iraq war, as well as his experience and knowledge, make him attractive to whichever party is in power when the next round of political appointments begins after the election.

The long-shot candidates play an important role in US politics, and thanks to the media their messages are instantly available to anyone with a modicum of interest in the process. And it helps to remember that the long shot is not a no-shot; Bill Clinton, once labeled a long shot, became the "comeback kid", and then the president. Former front-runner Howard Dean once had barely a glimmer of hope; for example, in August 2002 the Weekly Standard described him as "a possible dark-horse candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2004" in an article entitled "Harebrained Howard".

Outsider candidates keep the process fresh, challenging mainstream candidates to refine their stances; they turn on voters who otherwise might not be interested in the process, and they challenge their political parties to maintain their relevance to the shifting tastes of the electorate.

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Jan 31, 2004


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