WASHINGTON — Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is back out on the campaign trail, where he always seems to be, hustling for votes in Tuesday's crucial Democratic primary.
But he is no longer running for president or supporting one of the remaining contenders. For the first time since he was elected to Congress in 1996, Kucinich is battling to keep his seat.
The iconic antiwar liberal, whose legislative efforts include proposing a Department of Peace and introducing articles of impeachment against Vice President Dick Cheney, is facing his first serious challenge from fellow Democrats in his Cleveland-based district.
His quadrennial long-shot bids for the White House have shaped a quirky but largely beloved image for Kucinich at home and on Capitol Hill. But those very attributes have been turned against the six-term congressman.
"He doesn't want to be our congressman anymore. It's clear he's left the building. The guy's got Hollywood fever, and that would be fine if he was using his national stature to actually get things done," City Councilman Joe Cimperman, Kucinich's main opponent, said in a telephone interview.
Some pillars of the Cleveland establishment have abandoned Kucinich. The mayor and the Cleveland Plain Dealer endorsed Cimperman, citing the incumbent's increasingly national focus. Triad Research, a local polling firm, showed that Kucinich's job approval rating fell from 78% in 2005 to 56% late last year.
There has been no public polling in the Kucinich race, but Cimperman, 37, is hoping Tuesday's main attraction in Ohio -- the Democratic presidential primary battle between Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York -- will bring out new voters in the 10th District who also are looking for a fresh face to represent them on Capitol Hill.
Admitting he faces an uphill battle, Cimperman has resorted to attention-generating stunts. He appeared at Kucinich's Cleveland office with a videographer, who taped him handing a "Missing" poster with a large Kucinich mug shot to a front-desk worker.
Kucinich, 61, dropped his bid for the White House in late January after assessing the risk of losing his congressional seat, and turned his attention toward Cimperman.
"This attempt to paint me as a part-time congressman is just a lie. If anything, I was a part-time presidential candidate," said Kucinich, whose 11% absentee voting rate in the House was the best of any presidential contender.