On the rebound

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 2, 2011

Of particular concern, says pollster Starr, were the numbers on the extremes. Just 14 percent said they had a "very favorable" opinion of Cicilline, while 31 percent — three in 10 voters — had a "very unfavorable" opinion of the Congressman.

"It's hard to convert someone from a very unfavorable to a somewhat favorable, which means they're going to vote for you," says Starr.

And winning over the skeptics will be even harder when the advertising begins.

Cicilline's opponents will try to put his Providence problems at the center of the campaign, no doubt. And given the Congressman's tenuous support, the strategy could prove effective.

But Cicilline will have a few lines of defense available.

The state's high-profile municipal pension crisis and the broader struggles of Rhode Island cities like bankrupt Central Falls will allow Cicilline to deflect some of the blame with a "see, it happened to everyone" plea, says Darrell West, a former Brown University political science professor now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

The Congressman can also take refuge in national politics. And if the GOP maintains its intensely partisan posture, Cicilline could find some success there. But the strategy will be far more potent in a general election contest, against a Republican, than in a primary.

Of course, if two or three of the Democratic mullers — Gemma, who finished second to Cicilline in last year's primary; Segal, a progressive who came in third in the 2010 Democratic contest; and Sherman, the respected but inexperienced bank CEO — hop into the race, they could split the anti-Cicilline vote.

But if one of the would-be challengers is able to clear the field, the Congressman's weak support could be a real problem.

Cicilline, though, can be expected to shell the opposition; Sherman's role as a bank CEO in a down economy will get heavy play, no doubt. And he has been working diligently, in the meantime, to firm up his soft underbelly.

Since taking office, he has hosted seven tele-town halls with targeted groups of voters — singling out seniors, for instance, for telephone conversations with the Congressman on Medicare reform.

His constituent services operation — help with Social Security checks, veterans benefits, and the like — is solid, by all accounts. Insiders give him points for the August appointment of Chris Fierro, a politically astute former Woonsocket state legislator, to the vital post of district director — a sort of stand-in for the Congressman when he's in Washington.

And last month, Cicilline pulled together the entire Congressional delegation, every statewide elected Democrat, and 150 local officials for a barbecue fundraiser — and show of force.

A few days ago, I talked with a close observer of city and state politics who does not count himself a Cicilline fan. But the Congressman, he acknowledged, had mounted an impressive comeback — one press release, one appointment, one handshake at a time.

"One of the things people most dislike about David is they know he's become a career politician," he said. "That's what drives people crazy.

"But it's also what's going to get him re-elected."

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

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