Among those who could be campaigning for the GOP nomination in the meantime: Doherty, the former state police superintendent. His reputation as an honest, upright public servant presents obvious match-up problems for Cicilline in the current environment. But he is, nonetheless, a novice — his political skills untested, his record and positions on the issues in for heavy scrutiny.

And it's not clear where Doherty, or any GOP nominee, gets the money for a competitive race. Republicans are counting on anger at Cicilline's City Hall dealings to scare up a better-than-average haul of local campaign cash.

But while the Congressman's liberal profile and high negatives could, in theory, make him an inviting target for out-of-state money, national GOP donors will probably wait to make a decision until the last minute — with plenty of Republican candidates in more conservative locales vying for the same dollars.


THE MAP

However daunting the challenge, though, strategists say Cicilline's would-be opponents have a shot.

First, it should be noted, there are some multi-candidate scenarios that could hurt the incumbent. If a credible progressive entered the Democratic primary, for instance, she could eat into Cicilline's base — providing a third, moderate candidate with a real shot at the party's nomination.

But Cicilline has been a reliable liberal in Washington and, for now, there is no serious talk of a challenge from his left. If no formidable progressive materializes, that leaves any moderate Democrat with this imperative: get the incumbent in a one-on-one fight.

Too many centrists — in a primary or, for that matter, a general election tussle — will only split the anti-incumbent vote.

The message, for any opponent, is pretty obvious: 1) you can't trust this guy, and 2) don't let him do to the country what he did to the city of Providence.

One observer says the Doherty ads, in particular, write themselves: four Providence Journal headlines about the budget controversy followed by a few shots of the colonel in his police uniform. Extra shine on the buttons.

The trick, suggests GOP chairman McKay, will be staying on the offensive while Cicilline argues that Republicans "don't like seniors and children" and that voters are going to "eat cat food" under a GOP Congress.

"If you get caught defending," McKay says, "you're losing."

Then there is the map. Last year, Loughlin did well in the relatively conservative Blackstone Valley, on Aquidneck Island, and in Tiverton and Little Compton. A repeat performance in those areas will be vital.

But an opponent will have to do better among the well-to-do, New York Times-reading set in the East Bay and cut into Cicilline's big margins in the urban parts of the district: Central Falls, Newport, Pawtucket, and a portion of Providence.

Here, in these more liberal redoubts, is where it will be especially important for conservative opponents to temper the message — staying away from hot-button social issues as much as possible and inoculating themselves against Cicilline's Medicare and Social Security broadsides.

Pulling it off will be tough, though, in the midst of a national debate over those very programs. And it will be especially difficult against a pro like Cicilline — a skillful pol who, if he can survive the present trouble, should be in Washington for a very long time.

David Scharfenberg can be reached atdscharfenberg@phx.com.

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