CONTENDERS Democrat Frank Caprio.

Just a couple of weeks after Attorney General Patrick Lynch withdrew from the governor's race, it is quickly shaping up as a two-man battle: independent Lincoln Chafee versus Democrat Frank Caprio.

And what a fascinating battle it is.

There is, first, the narrow margin between the candidates. In the most recent public poll, conducted by Rasmussen Reports, Chafee had a 37 percent to 30 percent lead over Caprio, with likely Republican nominee John Robitaille pulling up the rear at 23 percent.

And those headline numbers were, perhaps, the least interesting in the poll.

Consider this: Chafee, a former Republican senator, had a 43 percent to 40 percent lead on Caprio among Democratic voters. And Caprio, the state treasurer, actually edged out Chafee among GOP voters straying from Robitaille — 15 percent to 14 percent.

It is but one sign of a race that promises to scramble traditional political allegiances in unprecedented ways.

"I don't think we've ever had anything like this," said George Nee, a veteran political observer and president of the Rhode Island AFL-CIO.

There is a certain logic to the schizophrenic polling data. Caprio, who has built his campaign around the idea of small business revival, has struggled to get traction with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, even as he finds solid support among moderates and conservatives.

Chafee, though a long-time member of the GOP, has staked out positions to the left on abortion, the environment, and issues of concern to organized labor. And now that Lynch has dropped out of the Democratic primary,progressive types who were considering support for the attorney general are looking more closely at Chafee.

"What you would consider to be the traditional Democratic base is up for grabs in this race," says Bob Walsh, head of the National Education Association-Rhode Island teachers union. "That's fascinating."

CONTENDERS Independent Lincoln Chafee.

Liberal advocacy groups could provide Chafee's campaign with shock troops, if they get in on his side. But for now, Caprio is running the superior ground operation. He's got a committed group of volunteers and large crowds at public events. And his campaign has shown a sharp eye for detail.

Jeffrey Padwa, a Democratic fundraiser and treasurer of the state party, supported Lynch in the primary. But he says Caprio personally called to ask for his support at the Democratic Party's state convention and sent regular, hand-written notes of congratulation on professional triumphs.

Darrell West, a former political science professor at Brown University who is now with the Brookings Institution in Washington, says that kind of ground game is crucial in a non-presidential election year when voter turnout is depressed and getting key supporters to the polls is at a premium.

But Xay Khamsyvoravong, Caprio's campaign manager, says his candidate will win, in the end, with the idea at the center of his campaign: "I think it comes down to message and we have been squarely focused on providing jobs through small business."

"Squarely focused" is, perhaps, an understatement. Caprio's talk of making government an ally of small business and, thus, an agent for economic recovery has been relentless.

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