Polls show Lincoln Chafee is the front runner in the race to be Rhode Island’s next governor. But you’d never have guessed that watching tonight’s WPRI gubernatorial debate, as Frank Caprio faced a concerted assault from all sides.
It was inevitable Caprio would face tough questions in the wake of Shoveitgate, but I was surprised by how much Republican John Robitaille – along with independent Lincoln Chafee and Moderate Ken Block – trained their fire on the Democratic nominee.
Robitaille – who gave a feisty and effective performance – was particularly scathing, chastising Caprio for Shoveitgate like a father to a son: “You’re not acting like a governor, Frank.” Later, when Caprio compared the investment return of Rhode Island’s pension fund favorably with those of other states’, Robitaille said it was “like saying the S. S. Minnow isn’t sinking as fast as the Titanic.”
Robitaille has been gaining in the polls over the past two weeks or so, according to both Rasmussen and internal campaign surveys, and if he wants to overtake Caprio to challenge Chafee he needs to win over the moderates and center-right voters who are still with the Democrat right now. He certainly did his best to make that happen tonight.
That dynamic left Caprio on the defensive, a tough place to be in a four-man debate. (Think of how different tonight might have gone if it had been just Caprio and Robitaille, or Caprio and Chafee.) All three of his opponents took shots at him during the first 20 minutes – even Block’s answer about suing the EDC included a swipe at the Democrat.
Caprio did his best and didn’t lose his cool. For me, the high point for Caprio was the poignant moment when he described his greatest regret as not spending enough time with the daughter he fathered as a teenager. For a candidate who has seemed almost robotic on the trail, it was a rare glimpse of the man behind the talk of jobs and kitchen tables.
What then of the front runner, Chafee? At times, Chafee almost seemed to be staying above the fray tonight – again, a surprising development with polls showing him out in front. Once again he cast himself as the optimistic candidate, emphasizing Rhode Island’s natural and manmade assets and the need for economic growth.
But Eyewitness News political analyst Joe Fleming told me after the debate he thought Chafee gave a markedly weaker performance than he did at our previous one at Roger Williams University. Chafee never offered up a regret when asked, for example, and sometimes meandered.
Ken Block was – well, Ken Block. He offered up enough one-liners and zingers to fill a Bob Hope Christmas special. He also emphasized his business and IT bona fides. But there were times he came off as a bit of a scold. “Oh my word,” he told Chafee at one point, “you’re not listening very well, are you?” Right now, Block’s main goal has to be ensuring he gets at least the 5% support needed to keep the Moderate Party a registered organization – which he should be able to do.
A few other quick thoughts:
• Caprio is now turning “shove it!” into his new campaign slogan. “If it takes telling someone to ‘shove it,’ I am going to tell them to shove it, because I am going to fight for Rhode Islanders every day up at that State House,” he said. Yes, we can!
• Robitaille bounced back and forth between conciliatory – pointing to his knowledge of labor relations to show he can work effectively with unions and praising Rhode Island Housing – and critical; he said he’d give the General Assembly “an ‘F’ – and that’s charitable,” adding that the Democratic-dominated legislature has “ruined the state” over the last 70 years. (Dems have held one or both chambers since 1941.)
• Chafee was a little retro tonight, mentioning both black-and-white TVs and Charles Dickens in his answers. He also used the Gettysburg Address for his sound check.
• On 38 Studios, Chafee pointed back to the highly critical Verrecchia report to explain why he is thinking about suing the EDC board – even though the current board was put in place specifically to deal with the problems identified in the Verrecchia report. (Verrecchia himself is on the EDC board now.) Later, Caprio said he would march down to the EDC next Wednesday if he gets elected to deal with the $75 million bond transaction if it still hasn’t closed – which is entirely plausible at the pace things are going. What would he say once he got there? And how would Keith Stokes respond?
• Frank Caprio’s campaign is glad to have Bill Clinton coming back to Rhode Island on Sunday to campaign for their man two days before the election. An aide told me it was in the works long before Shoveitgate, though the same person acknowledged he’ll have trouble getting people to believe that.
• Until the last week or two, Lincoln Chafee’s proposal to levy a 1% sales tax on exempt items had been the issue of the gubernatorial campaign. Tonight, it didn’t come up until 27 minutes in, and even then it wasn’t mentioned nearly as often as before. Any time Chafee isn’t talking about raising Rhode Islanders’ taxes is probably a positive for him.
• Gov. Donald Carcieri – remember him? – attended the debate in person, sitting with Robitaille’s campaign staff a few rows back from the front. Alas, he was too far away for me to see his reactions – but administration sources have made it clear he’s watching this campaign with great interest. Robitaille, for his part, loyally defended the outgoing governor – his former boss – while noting their different backgrounds (but not beliefs).
• No surprise that once again my pal Tim White acquitted himself well in the moderator’s job. By my count, this was Tim’s 2,743rd debate of this election cycle (and his last, except for Sean Bielat’s solo turn on Friday). Good questions from The Providence Journal’s Team of Eds – Fitzpatrick and Achorn – as well.
• Chafee had a line that I found funny, whether he meant it to be or not. Asked to grade the General Assembly, he said: “I’m not going to grade them, because I have to work with them.” Well, I assume if he was going to give them an A+ ahead of working with them, he probably would have said it.
• Caprio and Chafee had a nice moment after Chafee couldn’t come up with a regret but praised Caprio’s statement; Caprio turned to shake his hand, smiling broadly.
• Chafee is making a big play for Hispanic votes in these waning days of the campaign. He launched a Spanish-language website today, and said during the debate his first priority as governor would be getting rid of E-Verify. He got the endorsement of Providence en Español, too.
• Frank Caprio said his favorite book is “Lord of the Rings.” Who knew?
As I write this, it’s just past 9 p.m. on Tuesday night. One week from now, the polls will be closed and officials will be tabulating the votes to find out who Rhode Island’s next governor will be. WPRI will release our final poll of the campaign on Thursday evening, and I’ll be covering the last days right here on Nesi’s Notes. Then next Tuesday night, I’ll be here live blogging the results for WPRI.com as they come in – and of course we’ll have full coverage on TV, too.
In the meantime, one complaint we political reporters often hear is that there’s too much focus on the horse race, rather than substance, in the late stages of a campaign. With that in mind, I want to hear your questions about policies. What do you want to know about the gubernatorial candidates’ positions? Let me know at tnesi (at) wpri (dot) com and I will do my best to ferret out the answers.