But West said the voters probably won't blame the treasurer given the global nature of the financial downturn. Neighboring Connecticut has sustained a similar blow to its pension fund. And Caprio has even managed to win points for pulling the state out of several risky financial instruments before the market began its death spiral.
Indeed, one of Caprio's best assets, according to analysts, is that he projects competence. "He has a calm demeanor," West said. "He doesn't come across as highly polished on television, but he comes across as competent . . . In times of crisis, calm beats flash."
The treasurer has also carved out a niche as a techno-phile with a reformist streak, making use of on-demand advertising during his 2006 run for treasurer, putting his office's checkbook on-line, and using Twitter to provide daily updates on state finances.
That could give Caprio a head start in what political consultant Arianne M. Lynch, of Providence-based Advocacy Solutions, says will be the state's first real test of a technologically-driven, social-networking politics in the age of Obama.
But the treasurer's best argument for front-runner status is his bank account. Caprio hired Amy Gabarra, a former campaign aide to Providence Mayor David N. Cicilline, to run his fundraising operation just after taking office as treasurer in January 2007. And he wasted little time filling the coffers.
Caprio, who has also enlisted Clinton confidante and fundraiser Mark S. Weiner to beat the bushes, reports $1.2 million in cash on hand at the end of the first quarter — more than Lynch's $500,000 and Roberts's $300,000 combined.
The money should help Caprio build a formidable ground operation and advertising campaign, of course. But Bill Fischer, a media consultant who has worked on Democratic campaigns for years, suggested there could be other benefits.
Any candidate who raises piles of cash in the early going, Fischer said, makes a strong case for the support of the party insiders and interest groups who can mobilize volunteers, raise money, and turn out votes down the line.
Caprio, for his part, says it will take $5 million to win the gubernatorial race — primary and general elections, combined. Raising and spending that kind of cash would require him to opt out of the public financing system. And that sort of move raises the inevitable concerns about undue influence from the lawyers and lobbyists who bankroll so many campaigns.
But Caprio notes that a certain reform-minded pol who now sits in the White House made a similar decision and suggests that taxpayers might be pleased to see a candidate pay his own way in tough times. "With government budgets what they are," he said, public financing of the gubernatorial campaign "may not be the best use of government money."
But analysts say money, however important, is not as potent in Rhode Island as it might be in a larger state. With just a single major media market, advertising campaigns hit a saturation point at about $1.2 million, according to one political operative. And in a place where everyone knows everyone, where a statewide candidate can shake hands with half the electorate in a matter of months, dominating the airwaves just doesn't mean as much.
"It's a different dynamic in a small state," said Maureen Moakley, a political science professor at the University of Rhode Island.