Republican Congressional candidate Brendan Doherty entered his Tuesday night debate with Congressman David Cicilline on a bit of a hot streak.
Campaign finance filings show Doherty has more than twice as much cash on hand for the homestretch of the campaign. And the morning of the debate, he released a joint statement of support from former Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton (this AP story raises questions about whether the statement of support is really a full-fledged endorsement, but it counts as a coup, nonetheless).
Simpson and Bowles, of course, co-chaired a commission, appointed by President Obama, that aimed to develop an answer to the nation’s troubling, long-term debt problem. Their proposal - a mix of cuts and new tax revenue - has faced criticism, sometimes withering, from left and right. But it has become a symbol of the sort of serious, centrist politics that is so hard to find in Washington these days. It is, in short, the perfect totem for the sort of bipartisan image Doherty has worked to craft during the campaign.
As I argued yesterday, the Simpson-Bowles backing, the candidate's financial edge, and an unexpectedly strong performance in a recorded, sit-down debate on Channel 10 pushed Doherty into "serious candidate" territory heading into the crucial final weeks of the campaign.
But here’s the thing: despite Doherty’s centrist leanings and financial prowess, he entered last night's debate - the first high-profile, live confrontation of the campaign - trailing his opponent by six points, according to independent polls by WPRI-TV and Brown University.
The WPRI survey came before Doherty launched a series of ads attacking Cicilline, the former mayor of Providence, for misleading voters about the capital city's fiscal condition in the 2010 Congressional race. And much of the Brown poll was conducted prior to the broadcast of those spots. So perhaps he's in better shape than we know.
But Ciclline, who trailed by 15 points in February, seems to be surging. And the Democrat has a number of built-in advantages in a deep blue state, especially with a presidential race atop the ticket.
Doherty, then, had more riding on the debate. He probably had to land some blows, probably had to shake up the narrative a bit. And it's not clear that he did.
Doherty often tripped over his words - especially in the early going - and failed to clearly explain some of his critiques of Cicilline. For instance, he tried to liken the Congressman's "Make it in America Block Grant" proposal, which would allow old-line manufacturers to retool and retrain employees, to a Cicilline-era city of Providence loan program that has come under scrutiny for poor management. But I suspect only the political junkies knew what he was talking about; he didn't explain the Providence program or the controversy surrounding it.
A separate attack on a former Cicilline campaign volunteer who got a loan through the program was half-baked. Amid a back-and-forth about women and domestic violence, he threw out the acronym VOCA, took some time to mention what it stands for (Victims of Crime Act), and never explained what it does. And he talked of taking money out of the ground, without fully explaining that he was referring to energy leases on public lands
Doherty, to be sure, got stronger as the debate wore on.
He did a decent job of distancing himself from Mitt Romney and Washington Republicans. And he rolled out some good one-liners. He said that Cicilline is a far left figure - not "your father's Democrat" or "your grandfather's Democrat," but a man who falls outside the tradition of well-regarded Rhode Island Democrats like former Senator John Pastore.
But Doherty's central task, in my view, was bridging from questions on the issues to his strongest argument - that he is a man of integrity, a man who can be trusted, unlike a deceitful Cicilline. And he fell short there.
Cicilline, no doubt, delivered a flawed performance. The incumbent has somehow failed to work out decent answers to questions on the state's voter ID law and pension reform, even though they come up frequently.
But Cicilline's superior political skills were on full display last night. He was able to bridge - time and time again - to his central talking point: that he'll stand up to the House Republicans' right-wing agenda. He also did a reasonably good job of arguing that Doherty, even if he is prepared to buck his party's leadership from time to time, will bolster the Republican caucus and empower a Speaker John Boehner.
We don't have the instapolls that the networks referenced after the presidential debate, which kicked off just a half-hour after the Cicilline-Doherty tilt. But if we did, I suspect most viewers would say Ciclline won.
Doherty's task heading into Tuesday night was a daunting one. The first-time candidate had to best a more gifted poltician. And the debate, by its very nature, was destined to focus on the issues - never comfortable territory for a Republican running for major office in Rhode Island.
But the reality is, a GOP bid in the Ocean State always requires something extraordinary to succeed.
The big caveat here is that we still don't know whether Doherty's attack ads are moving voters. If they are, that could paper over Doherty's shortcomings in the debate. But if they are not, the Republican will have to find another way to alter the trajectory of the race. There are 20 days remaining.