The campaign allowed him to forge personal relationships with party stalwarts all across the district, of course. But it also leant him the aura of truth teller. His attacks on Cicilline's fiscal stewardship in Providence seemed vindicated, after all, when new Mayor Angel Taveras uncovered a $110 million structural deficit on the city's books.

Loughlin's supporters say his prescience will allow him to run a potent "I told you so" campaign of broad appeal.

But it also makes for a powerful lever on the GOP activist's psyche. Several Republican insiders I spoke with insist Loughlin, who lost by six points, would have prevailed if the media had called Cicilline's bluff on the Providence budget and national Republican money had come a couple of weeks earlier.

That sense of grievance has helped to bond the party faithful to Loughlin going forward. "My perspective going in" to the 2012 race, says Philip Hirons, Jr., chairman of the Smithfield Republican Town Committee, "was show me a reason he shouldn't get another chance."

Loughlin himself seems to share the sentiment. Accounts of an uncomfortable phone conversation between the GOP contenders several months back have him suggesting that Doherty, the newcomer to Republican politics, is the one who should step aside.

Mark Smiley, chairman of the Warren Republican Town Committee and president of an organization that pulls together all the city and town GOP chairs, adds that the colonel hasn't done much to peel away Loughlin's support among activists. "I don't see him at a lot of Republican events and he doesn't stay that long," Smiley says.

"That's really what it comes down to. I don't know Doherty — and he's not going out of his way to make sure I do."

This sense that Loughlin has paid his dues and Doherty has not feeds into a larger narrative Loughlin's allies are pushing: Doherty, they insist, is something less than a true conservative.

The talking points: Doherty voted in Democratic primaries in 2006 and 2008; several Democrats have contributed to his campaigns; and he has ties to the Lynch family, a prominent Democratic clan (a Phoenix search of campaign finance records finds Doherty's wife Michele donated several times to former Attorney General Patrick Lynch's campaigns and once to Daniel McKee, the Democratic mayor of the family's hometown of Cumberland).

Moreover, while Doherty's web site now says he is "pro-life," it once offered a more nuanced view, suggesting that he respects the Supreme Court's decision legalizing abortion even though he is personally pro-life.

Doherty dismisses the abortion flap — the new web text is no flip-flop, he says, just a simpler, more straightforward rendering of his position. And he says the critique of his voting record is "juvenile" — he cast ballots in the Democratic primaries not out of some fondness for the party, he says, but in support of unnamed individual candidates he admired.

As for the Lynchs, he says, he grew up playing basketball at the John Street playground in Pawtucket with Patrick's brother Bill, a former chairman of the state Democratic Party who ran for Congress last year. And he admires Patrick's work as attorney general.

His supporters, moreover, are quick to point out that the GOP hierarchy is hardly unanimous in its support for Loughlin. Rhode Island Republican National Committeewoman Carol Mumford is supporting Doherty, as is former party chairman Giovanni Cicione.

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