Women, women, women: where the presidential and RI Congressional races overlap

The parallels between the presidential race and the local clash pitting Providence mayor-turned-Congressman David Cicilline and his Republican challenger Brendan Doherty have been evident for some time.

Back in June, I wrote about Cicilline's critical play for women voters, part of a broader strategy to build up his margins among key demographic groups - including Latinos and younger voters.

It was - and is - a carbon copy of President Obama's re-election strategy. And the approach has worked pretty well for both men thus far - giving Obama a slight edge over Republican Mitt Romney amid deep concern about the economy and delivering a small lead to Cicilline, whose approval ratings plummeted last year over concerns about how truthful he'd been about Providence's finances during the 2010 Congressional race.

Romney and Doherty are both hyper-aware of the importance of the women's vote.

Mitt Romney's last debate performance was an exercise in appealing to suburban women - a more civil tone, lots of talk about moderation and pursuing "peace." And the campaign has launched a striking ad featuring a woman talking to camera about how Romney supports contraception and abortion in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the life of a mother.

But somewhere near the heart of Romney's message to women is an argument that they haven't fared well, economically, over the last four years. This, of course, is an effort to tie the women's message to the campaign's biggest theme.

Likewise, a new attack from Doherty - issued this morning - seeks to blend an appeal to women with the campaign's central assertion that Cicilline is a dirty politician, not to be trusted.

The Doherty campaign, in a press release, asserts that Cicilline issued a liquor license to strip club The Cadillac Lounge in exchange for campaign contributions when he served as Providence mayor.

Cicilline's "decision to accept political contributions from players in the sex industry speaks volumes about his indifference toward standing up for women," said Ian Prior, Doherty's campaign manager. (The Cicilline camp has dismissed the charge as "pathetic, desperate, and ridiculous," as it has other recent offensives by the GOP candidate.)

The attack comes in the wake of an ad sharply criticizing Cicilline for representing "rapists" during his time as a practicing attorney.

Romney and Doherty, of course, are confronting very different electorates. Romney is playing in a handful of purple swing states. Doherty must win in deep-blue Rhode Island.

Peeling women voters away from a liberal Congressman, in a Democratic bastion, is undoubtedly the tougher task. Doherty is clearly betting on the power of visceral attacks to do the job. And it's not clear that he has a better option - it's not clear, for instance, that he could take a Romney-like economic route. After all, it's harder to tie a freshman Congressman, like Cicilline, to the poor economy than a sitting president.

Besides, to make the economic argument - Rhode Island women have lost ground on Cicilline's watch - would mean moving away from what is clearly Doherty's most potent, overarching message: Cicilline is the untrustworthy, even corrupt pol and Doherty the virtuous former head of the state police.

The only trouble is that hard-edged frame may not play so well with suburban women, who are often turned off by attack politics. Maybe it will get to enough of them, though. We'll know in a couple of weeks (or not - just one more casualty of the Associated Press and television networks' decision to axe exit polling in Rhode Island, the bastards).

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