Eyes on the prize

By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  April 22, 2009

Of course, with women expected to run in as many as 15 governor's races across the country, Roberts will have to compete for EMILY'S List support. And Jonathan Parker, political director for the organization, said it is too early to commit to any gubernatorial candidates.

But he said the group would be "putting a big priority on governors' races" this election cycle and added that he has been in talks with the Roberts camp. "We are quite aware that she's running," he said, "and are very interested in her campaign."

Roberts, for her part, seems unlikely to make an overt gender-based appeal for votes and risk alienating male voters. But as her campaign director Seth M. Klaiman suggests, the lieutenant governor doesn't need to point out the obvious.

"We don't need to tell anyone she's the only female candidate in the race," he said. "They know it."

And if Roberts is expecting to get a sizable chunk of the women's vote, she can take heart in recent election results: women made up 57 percent of the electorate during the Ocean State's Obama-Clinton primary last year, according to an MSNBC exit poll, and fully two-thirds of female voters cast a ballot for Clinton.

West, of the Brookings Institution, said Roberts is well-positioned to build on a base of female support. "She has good upside potential because she's smart and a strong campaigner," he said.

Roberts, who is related to former governor Dennis J. Roberts and former attorney general Dennis J. Roberts II through her husband, built a reputation as a thoughtful and respected health-care policy expert during her time in the state senate.

And she has used the lieutenant governor's chair to burnish her health-care credentials and make a foray into economic policy — chairing the Small Business Advocacy Council best known for its Buy Local Rhode Island initiative.

Of course, it can be difficult for a lieutenant governor to point to substantive accomplishments. The office has little real power. But the post provides a statewide platform, the freedom to work on issues that voters care about and, as West says, "you're not responsible for anything, which is a good position to be in when things are going wrong."

Roberts has established solid progressive credentials on same-sex marriage and abortion, among other issues. But like her Democratic rivals, she seems eager to steer clear of ideological labels and make the campaign about leadership. Her brand, at this early stage: the optimist in a state in need of a pick-me-up.

"We need to rebuild confidence in our state," she said, in a recent interview.

Roberts will be honing that message with help from Joe Slade White, a Buffalo-based media consultant who is a long-time advisor to Vice President Joe Biden, strategist Karen Petel of Petel & Co. in Washington, and pollster Molly O'Rourke of Hart Research Associates, also in Washington.

But message alone won't carry Roberts to victory, analysts say. Public opinion polls suggest that voters don't know much about her. The lieutenant governor's fundraising operation has lagged behind that of her rivals. And if the ideological labels stick, she may have to compete with Lynch for progressive votes.

Sources close to Roberts add that she is, at her core, not a very political person — which can play well on the campaign trail or serve as an impediment in a closely fought race.

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