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State GOP chair: Carcieri, Robitaille potential senate candidates in 2012

Rhode Island Republican Party Chairman Giovanni Cicione said he will challenge Senator Sheldon Whitehouse in 2012, but only if no other high-profile GOP contenders decide to run. He named Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian, term-limited Governor Donald Carcieri '65 and 2010 gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille as strong potential challengers to the first-term senator.

"Somebody's got to step up and step up soon," Cicione said of his party's need to field a candidate to unseat Whitehouse.

When asked about a potential bid, Avedisian said that while it is "flattering" to be mentioned by the chairman of his party, he has not given a Senate candidacy much thought. Carcieri and Robitaille could not be reached for comment.

"There are a lot of good choices, and I am somewhere down that list," Cicione said.

Cicione, a Barrington attorney, was the architect of his party's Clean Slate initiative, an effort to unite a coalition of Republican, independent and Moderate Party candidates in loosening Democratic control of the General Assembly in this month's elections. While Republicans gained eight seats in the state legislature under Cicione's leadership, they also lost close contests for the governorship and the first congressional district.

"Cicione was floating names from across the political spectrum," said Tony Affigne, a visiting professor of ethnic studies who also holds an appointment in the Providence College Department of Political Science.

Avedisian, who has been mayor of the state's second largest city since 2000, "is very close to the Democratic Party on most issues," Affigne said.

Carcieri and Robitaille, who are more conservative, face questions about their viability as candidates, he said. Carcieri's low approval ratings as governor might make it difficult for him to earn enough statewide support to win, while Robitaille will likely face "closer scrutiny" than he garnered in a three-way gubernatorial race in which the two frontrunners "spent most of their time criticizing each other," he said.

But if Chairman Cicione does decide to launch a bid, his lack of name recognition and his close association with the state Republican Party could make the contest an uphill battle, according Victor Profughi, Rhode Island College professor emeritus of political science and director of the polling firm Quest Research.

"People would identify him more likely with the party than with anything else, and that is not a plus right now," Profughi said. "I think he would have some high hills to climb in order to be a credible candidate and be a winner."

Whitehouse — who unseated governor-elect Lincoln Chafee '75 P'14 in 2006 to become Rhode Island's junior senator — has an advantage due to the state's Democratic leaning and his incumbent status, though the current political environment means no officeholder is completely safe, Profughi added.

"I don't see a lot of activity that would put him in immediate jeopardy, but clearly in today's climate any incumbent has to consider him or herself in danger," he said.

A poll released by the Taubman Center for Public Policy and American Institutions in October found that 40.7 percent of Rhode Island voters rate Whitehouse's performance as good or excellent, while 48.5 percent rated it fair or poor.

Affigne said Whitehouse may face a less favorable political climate than the one that allowed him to unseat a popular Republican incumbent in 2006.

"Whitehouse probably did not win that election because a strong majority of the electorate felt he would be a better senator, but rather because the Rhode Island electorate wanted a Democratic majority," Affigne said.


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