With multiple candidates on the final ballot — particularly two pro-business challengers competing for the same moderate and conservative voters — the advantage, once again, would go to the incumbent.


THE OBAMA FACTOR

Cicilline can also count on some help from the political calendar. If he can make his way through the Democratic primary, he'll enter the general election fight with President Obama atop the ticket.

Obama's popularity in Rhode Island, and across the country, is waning. But in a blue state, he should bring Democrats to the polls in large numbers — particularly if the economy picks up. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, a savvy campaigner flush with cash, will bolster the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort with his own re-election bid.

And Cicilline himself will bring considerable strengths to bear as a retail politician and fundraiser — strengths amplified by the advantages of incumbency. Lobbyists and political action committees, if they're not too spooked by the bad press in Rhode Island, will be far more eager to give money to a sitting Congressman than to his challenger.

Cicilline's first-quarter haul of $125,000 was below the $175,000 average for freshman members of the House. But it's still a solid figure. And it was on the upper end for the small class of first-term Democrats who, as members of the minority party, have a harder time raising cash than their Republican counterparts.

Freshmen Democrats are also at a disadvantage in the legislative chamber; they have virtually no shot at passing the sort of legislation they can tout on the campaign trail. But members of the House — just one of 435 — have a hard time getting significant bills to the president's desk under the best of circumstances. And the GOP's ascendancy provides, perhaps, an even more potent message: vote for the Republicans and they'll end Medicare as we know it.

Indeed, Cicilline — like Democrats all over the country — is already making that argument. His "Congressional Series for Seniors" has him touring the district and tearing into a GOP budget, authored by Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and passed by the Republican-controlled House, that would turn Medicare into a voucher-style program.

The message works on two levels: it resonates with Rhode Island's older, left-of-center electorate and it shifts the focus away from Providence's budget mess and toward national affairs.


THE OPPOSITION

The incumbent is pressing that message on an imperfect field of potential opponents. Gemma, the businessman, faced questions last year about his Democratic bona fides. And if he runs in the primary again, Cicilline will almost certainly resurrect them.

Loughlin made an impressive showing last fall. But he failed to beat Cicilline amid a national GOP wave and it is unclear that he can prevail in a rematch.

The conservative positions Loughlin staked out on abortion, immigration, global warming, and Social Security last year could also mean trouble this time around. And then there's the Iraq problem.

Loughlin, a lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, is headed overseas. And while he maintains that he'll be home by the end of the year, with plenty of time to mount an effective campaign — indeed, Republican insiders say he is all but certain to run — an extended absence will surely present some problems.

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