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For Dennis Kucinich, a cautionary tale

October 6, 2007 | 10:00 am

Dennis Kucinich is back in California Sunday, making the latest of his several visits to the state this year. In the morning, he'll speak to a conference of national Latino leaders in Los Angeles, then travel to San Jose for an afternoon talk to the state employees association.

Sunday night, he'll raise money in Portland. And Tuesday he'll campaign in Albuquerque.

Cool cities, all. Indeed, as he pursues his against-all-odds bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, Kucinich has pieced together an enviable itinerary (above and beyond the requisite sojourns to Iowa and New Hampshire).

Early September found him in Miami and West Palm Beach. The middle of the month was highlighted by his three-day excursion to Hawaii. And he welcomed the start of fall by stumping in the scenic West Coast communities of Ojai and Santa Barbara.

While he was in the neighborhood during that latter trip, he dropped by beautiful downtown Burbank for an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno."

His travels have gotten noticed --- and not in a good way --- back in Cleveland, where Kucinich represents a House district encompassing much of the city and several of its 'burbs.

A recent piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that "Kucinich's campaign jet-setting is no laughing matter to constituents..." The story quoted one as asking, "Who is minding the store and doing my business in Washington while he is flittering around the world?"

Kucinich actually ...

makes a point of missing hardly any roll call votes on Capitol Hill; his record on that front surpasses the passel of other members of Congress running for president.

But clearly, folks on the homefront are wondering if he's still one of them. And according to the Plain Dealer article, "Dissatisfaction with Kucinich is bringing potential Democratic primary challengers to his House seat out of the woodwork."

A lengthy profile earlier this week in the Chicago Tribune (which revealed, among other things, that Kucinich's favorite non-campaign activity is "three-dog-night cinema," when he and his wife watch rented movies with their three dogs), explored the discontent theme. It carried this quote from Brent Larkin, editorial page director for the Plain Dealer: "There is an increasing amount of chatter about an absentee congressman. He made his point in 2004 (when Kucinich also made a no-chance run for the White House). Now it's gotten a little bit old."

In his two national campaigns, Kucinich has cast himself as an uncompromising, hard-core liberal idealist. But he is also an experienced politician --- after a disastrous term as the "Boy Wonder" mayor of Cleveland in the late 1970s, he rebounded to capture his House seat in 1996. Chances are he won't allow himself to be bushwhacked out of it.

All that said, our thoughts wander and we recollect the fate of California's Bob Dornan.

Like Kucinich, Dornan was a House member who launched an improbable presidential bid. A former fighter pilot and one-time LA talk show host, he long had reveled in raising his own brand of conservative hell and was known for his outrageous style (castigating Bill Clinton as a draft dodger, he referred to him as "the Chicken Little from Little Rock"). Folks in his Orange County district didn't seem to mind much, routinely returning him to office --- until, that is, the 1995-96 campaign season unfolded.

Dornan clearly loved the limelight of a national campaign; during one candidate forum, he proudly proclaimed himself the Republican version of Braveheart (Mel Gibson's bio-flick had been one of the big hits of 1995). But the campaign also served to throw his eccentricities into bold relief and his constituents, it turned out, were not amused. His presidential dreams quickly dashed, he then shockingly lost his House seat in the 1996 general election, edged out by Democrat Loretta Sanchez (who has held the post ever since).

Kucinich's political situation is different in that if he confronts a serious challenge, it appears it will come from within his party in the nomination contest, not from a Republican challenger in the November vote. Dornan's Orange County district was undergoing demographic changes (mainly, an influx of Latino voters) that made it more competitive in the general election; Kucinich's district remains solidly Democratic.

Still, as Dornan learned and Kucinich might want to keep in mind, the white hot heat of the presidential trail has a way of tarnishing previously successful politicians.

-- Don Frederick