The Great Recession stung. A nasty labor dispute with Providence's firefighters lingered too long. Cicilline's reformist image suffered when the city's fired tax collector charged the administration with favoring allies in tax matters and covering up after the mayor's brother attempted to pass a bad $75,000 check with the city.

And looming over it all: a growing sense that Ciclline was too slick, too on message, too insincere.

Little surprise, then, that his margins in the 2010 primary and general elections for Congress were relatively thin. And when the truth about Providence's finances emerged last year, there was no great reservoir of good will Cicilline could tap — not even among the Democratic rank-and-file you might expect to rally to his side.

Indeed, there is a strong case to be made that the best chance to exploit Cicilline's utterings about Providence's finances — the best chance to play the truth card — was in this year's Democratic primary.

In a deep-blue district, voters might be more willing to dump Cicilline — to punish him — if they could choose another left-of-center politician as replacement.

But Cicilline's lone Democratic primary challenger, businessman Anthony Gemma, has proven inept at the politics of truth. He's buried the obvious message: Cicilline lied to you about Providence's finances and he'll lie to you again.

And he's made no mention of a subsequent manipulation that could add heft to the charge: Cicilline's successful push last year to redraw his district in dramatic — and politically advantageous — fashion, even as his campaign denied significant involvement.

Instead, Gemma staked his challenge on an ill-conceived push to pin charges of voter fraud on the incumbent — charges he was unable to substantiate at a much-hyped press conference a couple of weeks ago.

After reading from what he said were signed, sworn statements by former Cicilline volunteers attesting to fraud, he declined to provide the names of those volunteers; he had to protect them, he said, and the integrity of any criminal investigation.

A skeptical press devoured Gemma. And when he blurted out a couple of the most colorful charges his private investigators had allegedly unearthed — frightened voters holed up in attics with weapons and a high-ranking member of the state's House of Representatives cross-dressing to cast a false ballot — he provided the Cicilline camp with all the sound bites it needed to discredit the press conference as the rantings of a desperate nut.

Since then, Gemma has produced one of the former volunteers, Enerolisa "January" Escobar, who told the Providence Journal of a systematic effort to pay for fraudulent votes during Cicilline's 2002 campaign for mayor. But that account — not so easily dismissed — may be too little, too late.

Indeed, any power it might have had seems likely to drain in the face of Gemma's belated attempt — rolled out in a recent radio debate — to back away from the voter fraud argument and make the appeal he should have made all along: a broad appeal to trust.


FEINT AND DODGE

If Cicilline makes it through the September 11 primary, the Congressman faces a second opponent — Republican Brendan Doherty — who will presumably make better use of the incumbent's failings.

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