An ad released this week attacking Cicilline's record on economic development — probably Gemma's most effective spot to date — seemed the first sign of a more robust approach.


But none of these challengers claim a lead over Cicilline in their internal polling. And all three have their weaknesses.

Segal's appeal to the left, if a source of strength, also places limits on the size of his electoral coalition. Lynch has not lived up to expectations on the fundraising front and his attack on Cicilline as a "career politician" rings a little hollow given his long service as party chairman. Gemma, for his part, is only starting to recover from the mistakes of a political novice: scattered messaging and, in the early going, poor debate performance.

Those shortcomings contribute to a consensus view, among political observers, that Cicilline is in the best position as the September 14 primary approaches.

But politicos say the mayor's own campaign performance has played no small part in turning what was supposed to be a battle royale for that rarest of prizes — an open seat in Rhode Island's small and surprisingly influential Congressional delegation — into something less than.

It is easy to forget, but Cicilline entered the contest with substantial liabilities.

In a February poll out of Brown, just 41 percent of voters statewide said he was doing an "excellent" or "good" job, while 46 percent rated his performance "only fair" or "poor."

Those numbers owed much to a dismal economy that has proven a drag on incumbents nationwide. But Cicilline had also endured his share of controversies over eight years in the mayor's office: a protracted contract dispute with city firefighters, a snow storm that left school children stranded on buses, a brother who attempted to pass a bad check with the city; more recently, a drug-dealing scandal has roiled his police department.

And even without those problems, the mayor of the state's largest city has inherent problems appealing to suburban voters who may wonder whether he has their interests at heart.

But Cicilline's position came with certain natural advantages, too: the mayor of Providence was assured a level of name recognition that his Democratic rivals cannot claim.

And as the only candidate in the field who has run for a high-profile office, Cicilline had a ready-made fundraising network that has proven particularly useful in a shortened campaign cycle. "The best way to raise money is if you've already done it," says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The mayor pulled in close to $1.2 million by the end of the last reporting period in June; none of his rivals garnered even a quarter of that total.

The sheer size of Cicilline's war chest is impressive. But his fundraising prowess is hardly a surprise. And that made his speedy decision to hop into the race, shortly after Kennedy's announcement, a potent weapon in and of itself: helping to dissuade some potential rivals from launching a campaign.

Of course, message matters too. And Cicilline has done well on that front. With plenty of money to spend, he's launched four ads produced by Washington consultant Mandy Grunwald — all hitting the right notes.

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