The problem, of course, is that Doherty's passion does not fit all that well with the moment or the district. The coming campaign, barring a major terrorist attack, will be about the budget, the economy, and entitlement reform.

Those issues, particularly Medicare and Social Security, favor Democrats — especially in an aging, blue state like Rhode Island. And Cicilline is sure to make maximum use of them.

The Congressman's highest-profile piece of legislation, though destined to go nowhere in a GOP-controlled House, aims to revive manufacturing in the United States — a particularly salient concern in the crucial Blackstone Valley portion of the district. And he has already gone on an extensive tour of senior centers, pledging to fight Republicans who want to "end Medicare as we know it."

A grand, bipartisan budget deal in Washington that fixes the entitlement programs could blunt Cicilline's critique. But given that Democrats all across the country are eager to run on Medicare and Social Security next fall, don't count on them to sign off on a sweeping, campaign-killing agreement.

The challenge for Doherty, then, will be to shift the focus away from the national issues and toward local concerns: Providence's budget woes and questions about Cicilline's character.

When I asked the colonel how he plans to do that, he was quicker and surer with his response than I expected: "I plan on spending a tremendous amount of money and getting my message out," he said.

Indeed, if Doherty is still learning the game, he seems to have fully absorbed its most important rule. Too many candidates, he said, fall short because they don't have the money.

"That won't be me," he insisted.

Here, it seems, is where the discipline and determination of a decorated state police officer just might overcome a deficit in political experience. Doherty, back in the SUV again, stole a glance at me. "Anything I've done," he said, "I've done it the right way."

Then, he turned back to the road and drove. Straight ahead.

David Scharfenberg can be reached at dscharfenberg@phx.com.

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