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R.I. GOP Still Hopeful Whitehouse Challenger Will Emerge

Douglas Graham/Roll Call
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse is one of several Democrats from the large class of 2006 facing their first re-election test in 2012.

Carcieri, a wealthy former businessman who reached the term limit as governor last year, has been spending much of his time in Florida and isn’t expected back in the state until later in the spring. “Carcieri has purposefully been spending time with his family and not been involved in politics,” Cicione said. “But I suspect when he gets back, that’s the time he’ll start talking to people.”

Polling shows Whitehouse with relatively high unfavorable ratings, and the consensus among Republicans seems to be that the 2012 race can be competitive despite the state’s overwhelming Democratic lean.

“I think he’s vulnerable,” Cicione said, noting that the Democrat’s “numbers will trend up until people start reminding voters of his record of public outbursts and bad votes.”

Whitehouse drew fire from tea party supporters from across the nation for going after the grass-roots conservative movement during a memorable floor speech in late 2009.

Speculation continues to swirl around the potential candidacy of former Hasbro CEO Alan Hassenfeld, a prospective candidate who Cicione says is “intriguing.” Cicione added that although Hassenfeld may sound a bit like Carcieri on paper, there is an important difference.

“Alan is a very socially liberal business type,” Cicione said. “He joked with a reporter that he’s a conservative Democrat. There’s a very, very clear distinction between Carcieri and Hassenfeld.”

The similarity, of course, would be that both men could likely help fund their own campaigns, which could be a requirement for a credible challenger given the fundraising challenges for a Republican candidate in the heavily Democratic Ocean State.

There could be a bright spot on the horizon for Rhode Island Republicans, however.

As Cicione prepares to leave at the conclusion of his second term in mid-March, the new state GOP leader could be former National Republican Committee Chief of Staff Ken McKay.

The Rhode Island native served former RNC Chairman Michael Steele until a spending controversy forced him out of the high-profile job last April. But McKay’s experience and his national fundraising connections could help bring the state party back to relevance in the future.

It’s worth noting that McKay is a former Carcieri campaign manager.

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