By Anne E. Kornblut and Nia-Malika Henderson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, October 25, 2010; 11:48 PM
WOONSOCKET, R.I. - In a year when some Democrats are keeping President Obama at arm's length, Rhode Island gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio went a provocative step further Monday, telling Obama to "shove it" after learning from a reporter that he would not be getting an endorsement from the president.
As Obama traveled to Rhode Island for an official stop and a campaign fundraiser, White House officials said Obama would sidestep one local contest - the governor's race - out of respect for Lincoln D. Chafee, a former Republican senator now running as an independent. Chafee was an early Obama supporter and a fellow opponent of the war in Iraq.
But the news stung Caprio, who had said earlier that he would welcome Obama's backing. He took to the airwaves to denounce the president and to try to turn the development to his advantage, quickly making the contretemps the central political news of the day.
"He can take his endorsement and really shove it, as far as I'm concerned," Caprio, the state treasurer, said on WPRO-AM. He added: "What I'm saying to President Obama very clearly is, I'll wear as a badge of honor and a badge of courage that he doesn't want to endorse me as a Democrat, because I am a different kind of Democrat."
While that is a line that could resonate in countless races across the country this year, it was a surprise to hear it in Rhode Island, a deeply Democratic state where Obama remains popular and was expected to have a smooth ride Monday.
In some ways, the state's quixotic politics were to blame: Chafee was among the country's most liberal Republicans before leaving the party altogether and is to the left of his Democratic opponent in this year's race. Still, according to Darrell West, an expert in Rhode Island politics who is now at the Brookings Institution, it was "embarrassing for the Democratic gubernatorial candidate not to be endorsed by a Democratic president."
"But he's now trying to play it to his advantage by playing to voter anger," West said of Caprio. "Even in Rhode Island, people are upset about the current direction of things." And the tiff could serve as an unwelcome distraction for Obama, West said. "The purpose of that visit was to keep Patrick Kennedy's seat Democratic, and now the story is the president not endorsing the Democratic candidate for governor. So it's the wrong message one week out," he said.
Nathan Daschle, the executive director of the Democratic Governors' Association, expressed disappointment that Obama would not support Caprio, whom he said "deserves the full support of our party and its leaders."
Several local Democrats, however, denounced Caprio - Sen. Jack Reed called the candidate's comments "very disappointing" - and chalked up the incident to the high-adrenaline atmosphere of the late campaign season, a view even the White House adopted.
"Emotions are running pretty high, so I don't think anybody's surprised to see people feeling particularly strongly about these races," deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton told reporters on Air Force One as Obama flew to Providence.
If Caprio's remarks were fueled by emotion, that did not stop him from repeating them a short time later. Standing in front of a Sports Authority store at the Warwick Mall, Caprio tried to portray Obama's backing as irrelevant.
"I didn't seek the president's endorsement. The only endorsement I care about is from the people of Rhode Island," he said, according to the Providence Journal.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, who also happened to be in Rhode Island, said he could understand Caprio's rage. "It's really insulting, when you think about it," he said.
Kornblut reported from Washington.