City Councilman Joe Cimperman, once a Kucinich admirer, has raised nearly $500,000 and landed high-profile endorsements from the mayor and the city's daily newspaper in a feisty campaign heading into Tuesday's Democratic primary.
"Mr. Kucinich is not a congressman, he's a showman," said Cimperman, 37, who has belittled Kucinich's Hollywood ties and criticized congressional votes Kucinich missed during his presidential campaigns.
Kucinich, 61, a liberal with a political resume stretching over four decades, sensed early that the Cimperman challenge was real. He abandoned his presidential campaign on Jan. 25, months earlier in the race than he did in 2004 when he also was polling in low one-digit numbers.
Known simply as Dennis to most people in his Rust Belt hometown, Kucinich has returned to his familiar fighting-for-you mantra to win renomination. He landed a quick $700,000 in contributions.
"I'm not a patsy for business. I can't be bought," a frowning Kucinich said during a campaign debate. The debate appearance was a rarity for Kucinich, who has won re-election by margins of up to 75 percent in a reliably Democratic district.
With three other challengers on the ballot, Kucinich should benefit from a divided anti-incumbent vote. North Olmsted Mayor Thomas O'Grady, anti-war activist Rosemary Palmer and former Peace Corps volunteer Barbara Ferris all have campaigned on much smaller budgets.
"Dennis is going to make it for the simple reason that the opposition is divided," said Alexander P. Lamis, who teaches political science at Case Western Reserve University.
Charles Burke, professor of politics at Baldwin-Wallace College in nearby Berea, said Kucinich also would benefit from widespread name recognition.
Umar Al-Hakeem, who voted for Kucinich for mayor 30 years ago, hears his name in the news often and didn't know his opponents.
"I remember when he was young and baby-faced and full of salt and vinegar," said Al-Hakeem, 57, shaking his head at the memory of a "boy mayor" whose differences with the banks helped make Cleveland the first major U.S. city to default since the Depression.
There have been no published independent polls in the race. But Cimperman has been airing TV ads for months questioning Kucinich's commitment to Cleveland and missed congressional votes. He highlighted Kucinich's time spent campaigning for president by welcoming Kucinich back to Cleveland with a gift basket delivered to his home.
Kucinich said he has a 95 percent voting record and helped save steel mill jobs in a city ranked among the nation's poorest and hardest-hit by lost manufacturing jobs and home foreclosures.
Kucinich's campaign has included union-run phone banks, door-to-door canvassing, community candidate forums, mailings and handshaking at church fish fries. The plainly dressed people in his TV ads have a straightforward message: Dennis has been there when we needed him.
Opponents have argued that the quixotic Kucinich, an unrelenting opponent of the Iraq war, failed to build Capitol Hill alliances against it and has undercut his position with talk of impeaching President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney.
Mary Hunt, 70, of Cleveland, said Kucinich hasn't done much to stem the city's decline. But she isn't sure his rivals could, either.
"It's still the mess it was when I came here," said Hunt, who relocated from the northeast Ohio city of Medina in 1951.
Hunt said she was undecided about who would get her vote, and sounded ambivalent about Kucinich.
"I love him but he's got to straighten up," she said. "He knew in his heart he'd never make president."