A couple of weeks ago, political insiders were beginning to wonder if Treasurer Frank Caprio would run for governor after all.
And then, an all-in move of startling force: Caprio launched a $100,000-per-month advertising campaign a year before election day and promised to remain on the air until the end.
The campaign, for now, centers on an upbeat television spot focused on small business that asks viewers to share their ideas for turning around the Rhode Island economy.
And most observers agree that the 30-second ad, put together by Obama media man Jason Ralston and former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director John Lapp, is appealing.
But is a $100,000-per-month advertising campaign a wise use of campaign cash at this early stage?
Margie O'Brien, a spokeswoman for the Caprio campaign, said the campaign will help the candidate build name recognition and claim what will inevitably be the paramount issue in the gubernatorial contest: the economy.
And she insists that voters are paying attention to the race, even a year out. "We think that people are very interested already," she said, "and mostly because of the economy."
But political operatives say average voters are paying very little attention to the race, at present. The real target, they suggest, may be a collection of a few thousand people already fully engaged in the contest: journalists, donors, operatives, and Caprio's opponents — particularly fellow Democrat Patrick Lynch.
The ad, observers say, sends a strong signal that Caprio is in the race — and that keeping up with him will be difficult. "It raises the stakes for Lynch," said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island. "He's got to raise more money."
Lynch, the state's attorney general, has had trouble keeping up with his rival to date. At the end of the third quarter, he had $560,000 in his war chest to Caprio's $1.5 million. And with the treasurer projecting strength through his new advertising campaign, it could prove difficult to find enough donors to fill the gap.
Lynch's campaign manager, Mike Mikus, insists that the attorney general will have enough money to mount a competitive campaign. And he says his boss will not be intimidated by Caprio's ad buy. "If they're trying to shake Patrick up and get him out of the race, it's not going to work," he said.
Most political insiders agree. "These guys are both running because they believe they can win," said one seasoned observer, "and a year out, I don't think anybody is going to intimidate anybody."
Besides, Lynch is terming out of the attorney general's office and has nowhere else to go.
Mikus says he is actually pleased to see Caprio burning through cash early. "The more money they spend now, the happier it makes me," he said. And Rick McAuliffe, a lobbyist who is friendly with both campaigns, suggests that Caprio's money might be better spent building a field operation.
But the campaign insists that it is tending to the ground war, too. O'Brien points to the hiring of field organizer Brian Bass, who worked on Hillary Clinton's presidential run. And she says 2000 people have signed up to be volunteers with the campaign; another 2000 have become Caprio's Facebook friends.
Indeed, the treasurer seems to be suggesting that he can pay for it all: a media blitz and a sophisticated ground operation.