Those wins were part of a larger progressive tide that saw Angel Taveras win the Democratic primary for Providence mayor and David Cicilline triumph in a Democratic Congressional primary, proving that the left remains a potent political force in this year of Tea Party ferment — at least in Rhode Island.
That's a problem for Caprio. While Clinton, doing battle with Ross Perot and George H.W. Bush, was able to challenge Democratic orthodoxy on welfare and the like without fear of losing progressives, Caprio has no such luxury.
In fact, with Chafee firmly entrenched on the left, Caprio has been forced to compete with Republican John Robitaille for right-of-center votes — hence, an attempt to ease Robitaille out of the race that blew up on the campaign a few months back and an embrace of several GOP ideas: most recently, and remarkably, a call for the continuation of the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthy.
Those maneuvers, combined with a still mysterious meeting with Republican National Committee officials in February, have damaged his Democratic bona fides. A recent poll out of Brown University had him clinging to a narrow lead over Chafee among Democrats, 43 to 40 percent. And Chafee's internal polling gives Caprio just a one-point advantage.
Those numbers have some Democrats further down the ballot nervous. "There's real concern, within multiple sections of the party, about Frank's electability," says one Democratic operative.
But if Caprio's ideological play is fueling that concern, so are questions of character. Chafee has built his gubernatorial bid around a "trust me" message that leans heavily on the family name. His father John was a well-regarded governor and senator who ran as "the man you can trust." Chafee's own tenure as a Senate Republican was marked by opposition to the Bush Administration on the Iraq War and tax cuts.
And the "Trust Chafee" lawn signs and bumper stickers come with a less-than-subtle corollary: you can't trust the other guy. The Chafee camp has played up a Wall Street Journal article suggesting that Caprio, the state treasurer, traded campaign contributions from law firms for legal work in his office.
The campaign has also made hay of a pair of Providence Journal stories focused on Caprio's father — a judge and chairman of the Board of Governors for Higher Education who helped win jobs for friends at Community College of Rhode Island.
'HE'S OUR MAN'
CAPRIO AND CREW The candidate at his Johnston headquarters. The Providence suburbs are a source of strength for the Democrat.
But in a state that measures ethical breaches by length of prison sentence, it is not clear that the attacks on Caprio and his father are doing much to alter a race that has remained deadlocked, in the polls, for months on end.
And Caprio's strengths are not to be underestimated. He has proven a strong fundraiser and his discipline on the campaign trail has won a grudging admiration among his liberal critics in the party.
"I think he's almost obnoxiously on message," says one operative. "You ask him what color the sky is and he'll tell you we need to create jobs. And he deserves credit for that."