In Chafee we trust

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  October 14, 2010

Last month, when Chafee’s own pollsters asked likely voters to name their top concern, fully 65 percent cited jobs and the economy. No other issue topped 8 percent — and corruption came in at only 4 percent.

Chafee_DSC8946_main
BRAND NAME Chafee is running on his reputation for integrity.


THE CHAFEE BRAND

If the economy is the paramount concern, Chafee’s failure to emote on the campaign trail — his failure to empathize with a struggling electorate — cannot be serving him well. Voters may trust Chafee, but few seem to believe that this child of privilege feels their pain.

The candidate’s prescriptions for growth are not terribly inspiring either. While Caprio talks of turning state government into an advocate for small business, Chafee is making a somewhat strained attempt to link his ethics message to one of economic rebirth — arguing that Rhode Island needs to shed the “shadow of corruption” if it is to attract business.

Still, if the campaign could punch up its economic development talking points, it’s difficult to imagine a different overarching message. Trust is Chafee’s strength, his natural starting point, his family brand.

Of course, even supporters say he could have exploited the brand sans the sales tax proposal. “I think but for that, this race is over,” says Bob Walsh, executive director of the National Education Association-Rhode Island, a teachers union which has endorsed the independent.

But the resilience of the Chafee name, even with a particularly heavy albatross affixed, should not be underestimated.

Democratic political operatives say the Whitehouse Senate campaign never seriously considered impugning Chafee’s integrity during the 2006 race because the attacks wouldn’t have gone anywhere.

The Caprio camp has been a little more aggressive — highlighting Chafee’s service, for instance, on the board of a Ukranian pro-democracy foundation funded by a billionaire with reputed ties to organized crime (Chafee’s campaign says he is proud of the foundation’s work and notes that an Oxford University dean and former Canadian prime minister also served on the board).

But the effort has the feel of a half-hearted attempt to neutralize the stories calling Caprio’s integrity into question. And in a recent interview, Caprio campaign manager Xay Khamsyvoravong suggested the critique isn’t so much about Chafee’s ethics as his “judgment.”

It is a distinction that points to what critics call the flipside of Chafee’s honesty — a naivete, a bumbling quality, a tendency toward the verbal gaffe. Indeed, one operative close to the Chafee operation says the campaign’s biggest liability is the candidate himself.

But, that operative notes, Chafee has kept the mistakes to a minimum thus far. An ill-advised suggestion that former Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling faked the famous “bloody sock” he wore during the team’s march to the 2004 World Series seems all but forgotten.

And the campaign, thrown off course when Chafee voiced doubts about Education Commissioner Deborah Gist’s high-profile reform effort, has moved to contain the damage: a lunch with Gist and words of support for the commissioner in a subsequent candidates’ debate.

The kerfuffle, which centered on Gist’s enthusiasm for charter schools, underscored the divisions in Chafee’s unusual coalition of pro-business, good government types and public employee unions. “These people are at conflict on certain things — fundamentally at conflict,” says one operative. “And charter schools are one of those things.”

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