Indeed, the state Democrats are a fractious bunch: there are moderate and progressive blocs, pro-choice and pro-life camps.

But without a substantial GOP opposition, said House Minority Leader Robert A. Watson, too much power attaches to Speaker of the House William J. Murphy. "He can give 25 [Democratic] members a time out and still get a vote through," Watson said.

Indeed, former state representative Mumford said rank-and-file Democrats have a hard time challenging the leadership on any given issue when they can't threaten to join with a credible Republican opposition.

"Without us having power," she said, "they don't have power."

But the subtleties of parliamentary politics are often lost on voters who may view the election of a Republican governor, like Carcieri, as an adequate check on Democratic power.

Indeed, GOP leaders say one of their chief frustrations is that the public pins the state's fiscal woes on the Republican governor when authority is actually centered in the Democratic-dominated legislature.

But if the blame game is paramount in tough times, suggests Jennifer Lawless, associate professor of political science and public policy at Brown University, the Republican Party's weakness could actually turn into a strength.

"Ironically, the best bet for the Repub-lican Party might be a complete Democratic sweep of statewide office," she said, "because then there's no one else to blame."

David Scharfenberg can be reached at

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