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Do Gemma's Mistakes Matter?

Democratic Congressional candidate Anthony Gemma has made his share of mistakes this campaign season. He fled his official campaign announcement before answering questions from reporters. He made an impolitic comment about Iran's right to nuclear weapons, later retracted. And, perhaps most cringeworthy, he said he didn't have "enough information" to determine whether the United States should have intervened in World War II before Pearl Harbor to stop the Holocaust.

He also declined to back Senator Sheldon Whitehouse's candidacy. And now, a Politico report on Gemma's improbably large - and probably bogus - collection of Twitter followers is catching on.

But is the political class - the so-called Gang of 500 (it's probably more like 3000, but who's counting?) that pays attention to this stuff - overplaying the importance of these gaffes?

The truth is, your average voter doesn't know much about Gemma and won't tune in to the race for some time.

But if Gemma's mistakes are not having the impact, now, that those in Rhode Island's political bubble might imagine, the real question is, will they come back to bite him when the electorate is actually paying attention?

Perhaps.

Congressman David Cicilline's camp seems poised to bundle some of these gaffes with problems that have plagued Gemma since his first race for Congress two years ago - a donation to Republican Governor Carcieri, relatively recent registration as a Democrat, a shifting position on privatizing Social Security - to paint a broader picture of a phony, erratic pol who can't match Cicilline's Democratic bona fides.

And if the Cicilline campaign manages to make the election a choice between the two candidates - rather than a pure referendum on a deeply unpopular incumbent - that'll be a victory. But the choice will hardly be clear-cut. Cicilline, stung by the fiscal crisis in Providence where he once served as mayor, brings plenty of his own negatives. And Gemma has shown himself quite willing to spend his considerable fortune on attacks.

At this point, though, it's not clear the challenger can make those attacks - and present himself as a viable alternative - effectively. And here, I think, we see the real significance of Gemma's gaffes. The mistakes, themselves, may not be quite as bad as the political professionals imagine, but they could portend something worse: an inability to perform in crunch time.

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