Through it all, though, Robitaille and his campaign strategists — New Hampshire-based Profile Strategies, whose principles include James and Michael Sununu, sons of the former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu — saw a path to victory or, at least, a competitive finish.

And what is striking, in retrospect, is just how conventional that path was. Robitaille ran a by-the-book, northeastern GOP campaign — calling for smaller government and lower taxes while shying away from divisive social issues that were of little concern, anyhow, to voters preoccupied by a bad economy.

That such a message would garner some 34 percent of the vote seems almost inevitable in retrospect. Indeed, it appears that it took little more than a megaphone — the launch of Robitaille's advertising campaign — to move the numbers.

While Caprio's infamous "shove it" remark undoubtedly boosted the Republican's campaign, internal and public polling suggest that Robitaille's surge began a couple of weeks beforehand — when he first appeared on Rhode Island televisions.


OVER THE HUMP

Around this time, some Democratic operatives were beginning to wonder when Caprio would lash out at Robitaille. Both candidates, after all, were competing for the same right-of-center votes.

But as one source close to Caprio notes, that was no easy decision. A fight with Robitaille might have redounded to Chafee's benefit. And drawing a contrast with the Republican candidate was a tricky proposition.

Yes, Robitaille had worked as an aide to the unpopular Governor Donald Carcieri. And yes, Caprio could have tied the Republican to his former boss. But how to execute? Caprio, the state treasurer, had embraced a fiscal conservatism that looked quite a bit like the Carcieri-and-Robitaille model. And the Democrat sided with the governor on his controversial push to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the real difference between Caprio and Robitaille was experience — and casting oneself as a seasoned insider in the midst of surging anti-incumbent sentiment was a risky endeavor. Indeed, the Democrat had spent much of the campaign trying to run from the label.

Whatever the calculus, Caprio took a pass. Chafee only went on the offensive in the final days of the race, when it became clear that Robitaille was his chief rival. And with the election just around the bend, long-term fundamentals and short-term campaign strategy had left the GOP candidate tantalizingly close to the finish line. Could he have crossed it?

Robitaille certainly thinks so. He's been arguing in recent weeks — and he repeated the claim in an interview with the Phoenix — that the race would have been his had Caprio not fallen so far.

Caprio's "shove it" comments, he maintains, lost the treasurer a final cohort of stalwart Democrats who simply couldn't bring themselves to vote for a Republican and landed with Chafee or Moderate Party candidate Ken Block instead.

There may be something to the theory. Block, who finished with more than 6 percent of the vote, fared a few points better than anyone expected. But Robitaille's analysis is not entirely satisfying: Chafee, whose support registered in the mid-30s for most of the campaign, moved very little at the end. There was, for him, no identifiable "shove it" bump.

Indeed, it seems likely that a surging Robitaille benefited most handsomely from Caprio's collapse — perhaps picking up some moderates and business types who once backed the Democrat but figured he was unelectable after his controversial remarks.

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