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He's champing at the bid

Eager to stand out, presidential hopeful Dennis Kucinich takes the 'Seabiscuit' hook by the reins.

August 04, 2003|Reed Johnson | Times Staff Writer

Take a dark-horse Democratic presidential candidate (in this case, Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich), ask him to speak at a Hollywood function (technically, Sherman Oaks), invite some of The Industry's most active and outspoken liberals, and what do you get? Why, "Seabiscuit" references, of course.

Not that anyone was openly laying bets on Kucinich's long-shot run for the Oval Office at the Saturday afternoon party hosted by actors James Cromwell, his wife, Julie Cobb, and their friend Hector Elizondo at the Cobb-Cromwells' elegantly attired Valley home.

And Kucinich isn't really a horse, of course, of course. He's the former wunderkind Cleveland mayor who was sent out to pasture in the late 1970s, roamed wild and free during a lengthy political exile, then rose to his feet again on Capitol Hill in the mid-'90s. Lately, he's been trying to convince voters that he's the only bona fide Democratic progressive with the guts to take on the corporate fat cats, implement universal health care and nuclear disarmament, and confront George W. Bush on what Kucinich sees as the president's maladroit Middle East policy.

But with the 2004 presidential campaign well under way, Kucinich, 56, and the other eight declared Democratic hopefuls have begun courting celebrity support. And with the handy symbol of "Seabiscuit," this summer's big hit about an undersized equine with a bum leg who confounded the handicappers and rallied a Depression-racked nation, Kucinich's campaign staff has been playing up the parallels between man and mythic beast. His local supporters were likewise rarin' to make hay with the analogy.

Eric Forst, a volunteer, said that while his candidate may be close in proportion to a Santa Anita jockey (at 5-foot-7 and 135 pounds), he's a giant among liberals and thus a better Democratic standard-bearer than, say, Howard Dean, the party's current trophy horse among the pundits and paparazzi. "It wasn't really until Bush came along and started down this extremist path that I realized, 'Wow, I'm a progressive,' " Forst said, grinning.

Words like "liberal" and "progressive" have been loaded terms in America for some time, but there was no apparent fear at Saturday's affair of standing up and being counted. Cromwell, the tall, commanding actor who played a terse but warmhearted farmer in "Babe" and a beleaguered commander in chief in "The Sum of All Fears," described his own politics as "radical." He suggested that it was time for people wary about America's present path to make their concerns known, as some in Hollywood did during the recent Iraq war.

"I thought the Hollywood community was exemplary, from Sean Penn on," Cromwell said as he chatted quietly with Elizondo, waiting for Kucinich to arrive from an earlier speaking gig in La Canada Flintridge. Being politically outspoken in Hollywood is risky, Cromwell said, because it only takes "a wink and a nod and suddenly you don't have the part that you want."

Asked what he thought separated Kucinich from the other Democratic aspirants, Cromwell instantly replied that, first of all, Kucinich was a vegan. That may sound trivial, he said, but it shows that the candidate understands the inter-connectedness between humans and the planet's other occupants.

Elizondo, the urbane paterfamilias in movies like "Pretty Woman" and "Tortilla Soup" and the long-running TV series "Chicago Hope," said he identified with Kucinich's working-class background and liked the candidate's positive, Frank Capra-style vibe, "especially for someone who's about to be a cynic, like me."

A sudden gust of noise near the front door heralded the candidate's arrival, and a few seconds later Kucinich strolled into the room, smiling as he shook hands with anyone in range. Physically slight though he is, Kucinich has a longshoreman's grip.

Mercifully, on this hot summer afternoon, he quickly shed his dark suit jacket. But his rhetoric stayed warm as the conversation turned to California's miserable economic state. Kucinich laid the blame not at the feet of his Democratic colleague Gov. Gray Davis, who may be recalled out of his job in a few months, but at the collapse of key industries like aerospace, spiraling insurance costs, lack of investment in infrastructure and "catastrophic" energy deregulation policies -- problems that, Kucinich said, he'd address as president with a "WPA-type" public rebuilding program and other reforms.

"Because California presents a special case, there needs to be a special effort," he added.

As an aide spirited Kucinich away for introductions, volunteers glided in and out of the kitchen bearing platters of stuffed mushroom caps, hummus and pita triangles with cheery efficiency -- until one trying to negotiate a bottleneck near the dining room sent a bowl of salsa flying all over a white foyer wall.

"It looks like a murder mystery," one guest murmured.

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