FACING OFF Cicilline and Gemma.
Early this week, WPRI-TV released a poll giving Congressman David Cicilline a 12-point lead on his Democratic primary rival, businessman Anthony Gemma.
The TV station conducted most of the polling before Gemma's circus-like press conference last week, accusing the incumbent of voter fraud. So it's possible the charges have shifted public opinion in the interim.
But Gemma's failure to substantiate the charges — and the press's general disdain for his gambit — would suggest otherwise.
Entering the homestretch of the race, then, we were left with two vital questions. First, could Gemma somehow climb back into contention during this week's debate with Cicilline? And if not, what could the Democratic primary tell us about Cicilline's chances against GOP candidate Brendan Doherty come November?
First, to the debate. Gemma, it seems, failed to deliver the game-changer he needed.
The candidate didn't produce any more evidence for his voter fraud charges. And Cicilline was relatively successful in arguing, to a Democratic audience, that the focus should be on fighting the Republican agenda and not on Gemma's "ridiculous" accusations.
Moreover, the heated debate on voter fraud meant Gemma didn't have much time for a more fruitful line of attack: pillorying Cicilline, the former mayor of Providence, for his handling of the city's finances and his infamous declaration that the city was in "excellent" fiscal condition during his first run for Congress.
When the debate turned to federal issues, Cicilline's command of policy — and his ability to segue to talking points about the GOP's extremist agenda and the injustice of tax breaks for "Big Oil" — set him apart.
The incumbent's performance was a reminder of the advantages he would bring to a general election tilt: a mastery of the issues that Doherty, who has fumbled on policy questions, cannot match; a talent for partisan politics in a state that lines up with Democrats on the big issues.
But Gemma's failure to make a real issue of Cicilline's Providence problem means we haven't yet seen if the incumbent's political assets can bury his liabilities.
It's not entirely clear how damaging that liability will be come November. In the WPRI poll, 79 percent of respondents said Providence's finances will be "very important" or "somewhat important" in determining whom they vote for in the Congressional election.
That's a big number. And these are Democratic voters, no less. But they are the same voters who — whatever their concerns — gave Cicilline a sizable lead on Gemma in the poll.
The lesson for Doherty, it seems, is clear: if he wants to turn public concern about the capital city's ledger — and Cicilline's "excellent" pronouncement — into actual votes, he'll have to hammer on it in a way that Gemma has not.
Otherwise, Cicilline may be able to ride local disdain for the GOP to re-election. The incumbent, harping on the Republicans' "War on Women," has made female voters a central target (see "Win with Women?," 6.20.12). That effort helps to explain the wide margin he had on Gemma, in the WPRI poll, among women.
Rising concern about Republican plans for Medicare and Social Security may be behind Cicilline's big edge on Gemma among voters over the age of 60. In a May WPRI poll, Gemma had a one-point edge on Cicilline among seniors; the new poll gives Cicilline a 12-point lead in this demographic.
The polls, again, focused on Democrats and independents who plan to vote in the Democratic primary. The general-election electorate will be more conservative. But to the extent that Cicilline's popularity among women and gains with seniors holds in the general election, the Doherty camp needs to be concerned.