Still, getting national money — by way of conservative activists or the party itself — could make or break Loughlin's candidacy. And that makes the first head-to-head poll with the Democratic nominee after the primary vital. Only a tight race will draw the interest of Washington and conservative donors across the country.

"He's got to get close to get close," says Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island teachers union and a long-time observer of state politics.

Faring well in a poll against Cicilline could be tough at that early stage; the Providence mayor has substantially higher name recognition. But if he is able to pull it off, Loughlin will have some advantages moving forward. In a non-presidential election year, turnout should be depressed — giving a lower-profile candidate a better shot. And Loughlin, himself, is a genial figure with a strong grasp on messagecraft.

Democrats, of course, will try to paint him as a conservative Republican — they're already pointing to his pro-life politics and skepticism around climate change. And for a candidate who probably starts with 30 percent of the electorate on the right end of the spectrum, successfully claiming the middle ground will be key to building a majority.

"The question is whether he can pull in people who show a tendency to vote for Republicans [but can be] scared to vote for a Republican," says Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, a moderate Republican who has mastered the art in his city.

Staking out the middle will be easier if Loughlin is facing one of the more liberal Democrats, Cicilline, or Segal. Indeed, Gemma and Lynch are touting their middle-of-the-road appeal as reason for Democratic primary voters to vault them to the final round.

But even a liberal Democrat, well-financed and battle-hardened, will be tough to beat. This is Rhode Island, after all.

David Scharfenberg can be reached

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