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On the Riley Message

Congressman James Langevin has long been an appealing target for ambitious politicians - Democratic and Republican.

For awhile, there was the Langevin-isn't-Congressman-Patrick-Kennedy factor. Langevin was, by default, more vulnerable than the other member of Rhode Island's House delegation, the guy with the famous name and the money to back it.

Second, for Democrats picking a primary fight, there was Langevin's pro-life politics. Former Brown University political science professor Jennifer Lawless, who took on Langevin in the 2006 Democratic primary, built her campaign around choice.

And third, for Democrats and Republicans alike, there was the ineffectual argument: Langevin, his various challengers have said, just hasn't gotten anything done.

It is not an entirely fair critique: it's rare that any in the sea of 435 Congressmen, other than the most senior members, can claim authorship of a major piece of legislation that actually passes into law (Kennedy's bill requiring insurers to cover mental and physical health problems equally was an exception, born of his lineage and his dramatic, personal struggles with mental illness). But it's not entirely unfair, either. And more important, it seems like it should pack a punch. It has the potential to strike a chord with voters not versed in the ways of Capitol Hill.

Still, whatever Langevin's weaknesses, no one has been able to successfully exploit them. And a new poll from WPRI-TV giving the incumbent a 53-29 lead over Republican challenger Michael Riley suggests the dynamic hasn't shifted all that much.

But there's still time until Election Day. And Riley, who built considerable wealth in finance, has the resources that his predecessors lacked. He could put real money behind an advertising campaign - indeed, he's already begun to.

Is the message the right one, though? Has Riley found a weakness that others could not - a weakness that, if properly pounded, could put him over the top? Here's his latest TV spot, which is pretty representative of his messaging to this point.

An earlier radio ad focused on the $20 million in taxpayer dollars (read: salary) and "special interest" money (read: campaign contributions) that Langevin (and his staff) have collected since he's been in office. The same ad lamented that gas prices are high and the economy is in a rut.

Nick Tsimortos, spokesman for the Riley campaign, says the central message is this: taxpayers have invested heavily in Langevin, and "the investment is not paying off."

Tsimortos would not comment on whether the Riley campaign has polled the message (Riley's campaign finance filings show a $6500 payment to Telopinion Research in July). So who knows if there is a case for resonance. But there is a certain logic to the message: it plays on a broad distrust of politicians.

Indeed, it's the kind of ad that might be used against any incumbent, anywhere in the country. But that's the problem. It's unclear that this cookie-cutter approach can work here, that voters are willing to believe - as Riley's radio spot suggests - that Langevin is a "shark in the water." Langevin is a mild-mannered sort. And the gun accident that put him in a wheelchair as a young man still invokes broad sympathy.

Moreover, the message is, at its core, a rehash of the oft-tried "Langevin is ineffective" trope. And that message simply hasn't worked against the incumbent.

Riley's attack gets some points for in-your-face boldness; and the GOP candidate's money could give it some added heft. But Langevin, in the end, is an uncontroversial Democrat in a deep-blue district. And that makes him virtually impossible to beat, whatever the message.

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