Portland, Oregon

The peeling-gilt Aladdin Theatre, in a working-class neighborhood across the river from downtown Portland, generally draws rock acts a little too funky or faded to fill the city’s main showcases. Tonight’s headliner, Representative Dennis Kucinich, might qualify as either or both. But on this evening at the end of April, the Aladdin, with its 650 seats sparsely filled, is the last outpost of the Democratic presidential primary campaign.

Long after Senator John Kerry has clinched the nomination and all other Democratic contenders have dropped out, Kucinich is soldiering on–not to beat Kerry but to prod him. “Our campaign is giving him a road map to victory,” Kucinich says cheerfully before his speech. “It’s up to him to take it. Democrats need to demonstrate there is a capacity in our party to attract progressives. We can show there’s room in the party.” To Kucinich, that means four issues: universal single-payer healthcare, opposition to free-trade agreements, opposition to the Patriot Act and–above everything–getting out of Iraq. Kerry’s position, he says, is that “there’s a right way and a wrong way” to fight the war, and the idea nearly shakes Kucinich out of his jeans: “No!”

Judging by his almost imperceptible showing in previous primaries, Kucinich might seem an odd adviser on strategies for victory–although he notes proudly that he just won four delegates in North Carolina. But Iraq now seems both a bloodier and bleaker prospect than it did back in the snows of Iowa, bolstering Kucinich’s point that target voters want to hear a sharper message on the subject from Kerry.

Kucinich never criticizes the Massachusetts senator directly, but actress Mimi Kennedy (Dharma & Greg) follows the Congressman on stage and asks, “The guy who came home from Vietnam and had the courage to oppose a war he knew was wrong–where’s that guy?”

In the two months before Oregon’s May 18 primary day, Kucinich is spending a month in the state. At the end of April, he even launched a small TV ad campaign. The spot begins, “Hi. I’m Dennis Kucinich and I’ve approved this ad because your vote for me will give the Democratic Party the courage to stand for bringing our troops home from Iraq.”

Oregon was a careful selection for Kucinich’s last stand. The state has an active antiwar movement and progressive community and has been a Ralph Nader bastion. Maybe more important, Oregon’s primary voters have long shown a persistent fondness for candidates–from Nelson Rockefeller to Frank Church to Jerry Brown–who weren’t about to win but who did show up here. A sign in Kucinich’s Portland headquarters reads, “Everything we stand for may come together in a single state.” Pursuing that goal, Kucinich has stumped Oregon as if he were running for governor. He emphasizes college campuses–where he draws crowds of several hundred–but has also appeared at record stores, an Indian reservation, the Ben & Jerry’s in Eugene, and the Earth Day celebration at Portland’s Kellogg Middle School. He’s campaigned east of the Cascade Mountains, where a national candidate is as rare as a healthy wild salmon run. He’s taken positions on local issues from a new mass transit line to a public power proposal. Kucinich’s House ID could now easily read: “D-Ohio and Oregon.”

The Kerry campaign dismisses Kucinich’s effort as irrelevant to the looming Kerry-Bush face-off. But at the end of April, it did announce that Kerry would campaign in Oregon sometime before the primary. Kucinich’s impact is hard to predict. This year’s Oregon primary has no serious Democratic statewide or Congressional contest–or any of the antitax or antigay measures that often speckle the state ballot–and a small, determined group might make a showing. On the other hand, many Oregon Democrats are so focused on beating Bush that they’re reluctant to oppose Kerry even in a post-clinching primary. In 2000, Nader drew paying crowds of more than 7,000 in Portland. This spring, an effort to draw 1,000 voters to a nominating convention to put him on the Oregon ballot drew only 741. But Kucinich insists his effort isn’t about weakening Kerry but strengthening him. “Senator Kerry doesn’t need me to get to 47 percent,” he says. “The people I’m talking to are the ones who can make the difference. If Ralph Nader poses a threat to Democratic victory in November, it’s very easy: We just reach out and attract those voters.”

Across the street from the Aladdin, Kucinich supporters, resembling rock concertgoers, hold up signs for hours before his appearance. One reads, “Are Your Kids Draftable?” On a booming sound system, they play, over and over, a tape loop of one of his speeches, and hundreds of passersby hear Kucinich declare, “This is going to be an election unlike any election this country has seen since maybe 1968.” It’s probably not what he means, but 1968 may have been the last time the Oregon primary really mattered.