The Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor, widely seen as more conservative than the independent seeking to lead the heavily Democratic state, said Monday that President Barack Obama can “shove it” after learning Obama would not endorse him.
Frank Caprio’s campaign last week said he would welcome the president’s endorsement. But on Monday, the same day Obama was set to make his first visit to Rhode Island as president and a day after the White House said Obama would not endorse anyone, Caprio angrily told WPRO-AM that Obama can “take his endorsement and really shove it.”
It was a surprising about-face for Caprio, whose campaign said as late as Sunday night that he was looking forward to Obama’s visit, and that he would accompany the president to two public appearances.
It appears to be a calculated move by a candidate who is facing a tight race against independent former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican who gave a high-profile endorsement to Obama ahead of the Democratic primary in 2008, and Republican John Robitaille, who has never held elected office. There have been no reliable polls in the race to succeed term-limited Republican Gov. Don Carcieri.
Rhode Island went 63 percent for Obama in the 2008 general election, and Caprio is seen as more conservative than Chafee. Robitaille himself has said he and Caprio may be drawing from the same pool of voters. Robitaille on Monday called the remarks “a contrived Hail Mary pass.”
The White House wouldn’t comment on Caprio’s remarks. Mike Trainor, Chafee’s acting campaign manager, called the remarks unfortunate.
“The senator was shocked at how intemperate the remark was, especially with the president due to arrive in Rhode Island later today,” Trainor said. “Perhaps the strain of the campaign is wearing on Treasurer Caprio.”
Chafee has a record of standing up for liberal causes and was among the most liberal Republicans in the Senate during his time there from 1999 to 2006. He has supported more environmental protections, opposed President George W. Bush’s tax cuts and was the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq War.
Though the White House has said it’s not endorsing anyone in the race, Caprio on Monday accused Obama of plotting with Chafee to endorse the independent. Asked later Monday what evidence he had to back that claim up, Caprio refused to answer and accused a reporter of “baiting him.” Chafee has said he has not asked for Obama’s endorsement, and Trainor said Monday there was no truth to the claim.
Later Monday, he accused the president of starting the dispute and appeared wounded that he learned of the decision from a reporter and not the White House.
Caprio also accused the president of “treating us like an ATM machine” by coming to Rhode Island to raise money but ignoring it during springtime flooding that swept through the state. Though Obama did not visit himself, he sent Cabinet secretaries, including Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano.
Caprio called Obama’s rebuff “Washington insider politics at its worst.”
“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,” he told the station.
Caprio has rubbed some liberal voters the wrong way by meeting with the National Republican Committee in Washington this year, at a time when he faced a potentially bruising Democratic primary, for reasons he has yet to fully explain.
Republican Robitaille, a former Carcieri aide, has accused Caprio of pressuring him to drop out of the race and throw his support to the Democrat. Caprio also has publicly contradicted Obama on some important policy positions, such as saying he does not support letting Bush-era tax cuts expire on the wealthiest Americans.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island called Caprio’s comments disappointing and said the president has been extremely supportive of the state, including helping the state get millions in federal for flood recovery, infrastructure and to close a massive budget deficit.
The head of the state Democratic Party did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.
But Giovanni Cicione, head of the state Republican Party, called Caprio’s comments disrespectful and said Caprio’s campaign was in “meltdown mode.”
“To take that kind of an attitude in a public statement, I think was very disrespectful and I think it’s a shame,” he said. “It shows that he’s not the sort of calm collected person he tried to present himself as.”
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, in Rhode Island for a rally Monday, said he was amused by the conflict.
“He’s the Democratic nominee, for goodness’ sakes,” he said. “It’s really insulting, when you think about it.”