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Kucinich is baaaaaaaaack

From CNBC's Karin Caifa
As soon as news hit the wires yesterday afternoon that Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) would make another bid for the presidency in 2008, I was immediately bombarded with e-mails, text messages, and instant messages. Most of them to the tune of, "He's baaaaaaaack," or, "Are you ready for your second tour of duty?"

I covered Kucinich's 2004 campaign for NBC and MSNBC. Hey, everyone has to start somewhere. In retrospect, at 24, I was lucky to be covering any presidential campaign at all. Even one that consistently polled somewhere between zero and 2%.

I spent about seven months touring the traditional campaign states -- Iowa and New Hampshire -- and some not-so-conventional primary territories like Maine and Texas, in the Kucinich campaign minivan. No, not campaign plane. Not campaign bus. Campaign minivan. The 2004 campaign was no-frills, buoyed by financial support from an eclectic mix of peace activists, Kucinich longtime friends, and Hollywood star power (Sean Penn, Joaquin Phoenix and Danny Glover were among those who contributed their time and/or money). With help from federal matching funds, Kucinich managed to take his campaign all the way up to the nominating convention in Boston, dropping out barely before Democrats named Sen. John Kerry as their man. I, however, dropped out after the Super Tuesday primaries made it abundantly clear that the party had their nomineeā€¦ and it wasn't Kucinich.

It certainly wasn't fundraising cash or poll numbers that generated headlines out of the last campaign. Looking back on the experience, I'm astonished at how much curiosity the assignment piques among my fellow journalists and political junkies even now. I suppose I can't blame them. It was quite a journey. While other reporters were digging through FEC filings, I was following the heated competition to win a date with the then-bachelor candidate. Sparked by comments Kucinich made before a New Hampshire forum, some 80 women entered their names. The online contest ultimately inspired a "Dating Game" sketch with Jay Leno on "The Tonight Show," where a good-sport Kucinich chose between three lovely ladies. The winner of the Leno contest was actress Jennifer Tilly, which I thought a good fit. (Kucinich must have thought otherwise; he remarried in 2005.)

Every day I met more quirky Kucinich fans, from all parts of the country and all sorts of backgrounds, united by their fierce loyalty to the same guy from Cleveland. One young musician penned a polka just for the campaign, singing her heart out as she accompanied herself (and dozens of others) on the accordion. Another couple drove themselves from California to Cleveland in a modified Mercedes-Benz outfitted to run on soybeans.

With those kinds of supporters, you can bet Kucinich events were a little different from the average candidate speech and rally. While other contenders chose rollicking rock-and-roll for their entrance themes, the Kucinich campaign chose John Lennon's "Imagine," as their anthem. At a Washington, DC, event, Kucinich leaped up on a chair to lead the crowd in a sing-along of "This Little Light of Mine." In San Francisco, Kucinich supporters packed a candlelit church to hear serene speech from the Congressman and Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker. And in Austin, TX, thousands attended a fundraising concert headlined by Willie Nelson. I even faced my fear of clowns when the real-life Patch Adams joined Kucinich on the trail. (Good golly, the things we do for our careers.)

I am sure the Kucitizens will immediately spring back into action at today's announcement, at least those who have not spent the last two years clamoring for this second presidential bid from the former Cleveland mayor. Kucinich is getting an early jump on things this time around, like other longshot candidates testing the waters over a year before those first Iowa caucuses. They face an uphill climb, including Kucinich, with one national campaign under his belt. The competition within Kucinich's own party could be packed with charismatic, superstar candidates named Obama, Edwards, and of course, Clinton.

I must admit the unwavering support of the Kucitizens in 2004 was somewhat refreshing after watching staff and supporters jump from one primary candidate to another as the field got smaller. I do, however, expect that the outcome for Kucinich will be much the same this time around. That same fervid support from a rather small core, and single-digit finishes in most primaries. Taking encouragement from the outcome of the recent midterm elections, Kucinich is seizing on his strong anti-war belief to garner support. But overall, even with the voters' criticism of the way the GOP administration has handled the Iraq conflict, we saw from last month's midterm elections that the climate favors moderate candidates on both sides of the aisle. Kucinich's ideas are still a bit too left of the mainstream.

But every four years, we do get to have these amazing debates and dialogues as to which direction the country should head and who should lead us, and all kinds of voices deserve to be heard, even those tagged as longshots. So you can't fault a guy for trying. It's like Kucinich notably said at his congressional swearing-in in 1996, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try, try, try again."