PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Stung by a swarm of criticism and eyeing a precipitous drop in an influential Rhode Island poll, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Frank Caprio executed an about-face Saturday and expressed regret for having said earlier that President Obama could "shove it."
The remark, first made on a talk radio program last Monday, reflected Caprio's frustration that the nation's most prominent Democrat, who was visiting Rhode Island that day, was withholding his endorsement from Caprio, the state's general treasurer and the Democratic Party's gubernatorial nominee. Aides to President Obama explained that he was staying neutral in the governor's race as a gesture of respect to the independent candidate who is currently leading the race in the polls, former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, who had endorsed Mr. Obama in the 2008 presidential primary.
Caprio's outburst prompted strong criticism from both Chafee and the Republican candidate, John Robitaille, as well as a national discussion about whether Caprio had crossed the boundaries of good taste in directing such words to the president of the United States.
"I have had a lot of time to reflect on my words and I understand the criticisms," Caprio said in Saturday's written statement. "I respect President Obama's decision not to get involved in the governor's race. President Obama was being loyal to someone who endorsed him, the same way President Clinton has been loyal to me for supporting Hillary Clinton [in 2008]. The way the White House announced that there would be no endorsement caught me by surprise. I wish I had chosen different language, but now the focus has to be on what is important to Rhode Islanders."
Caprio's campaign issued the statement on the eve of former President Clinton's second campaign appearance on behalf of the Democratic candidate. Notably absent from the statement was any formal apology or expression of remorse.
The timing for Caprio's statement may have been triggered by the Clinton visit Sunday afternoon, at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in downtown Providence. But it may also have reflected the campaign's growing unease with the backlash the original comments generated.
In back-to-back debates last week, both of Caprio's chief rivals hammered him gleefully for the remark. "This is either a man who is not mature enough or doesn't possess the temperament to make good decisions and act like a potential governor," said Robitaille. "Or it's a petulant little child reacting to not getting his own way. Either way he did not act appropriately." "Mr. Caprio says, 'I'm standing up for the Rhode Island taxpayer,'" Chafee said, mockingly. "If you were to get elected, certainly you'd have a bad relationship with the president of the United States, and that would not be good for Rhode Island."
A survey of more than 500 likely voters, taken for local station WJAR-TV partly before and partly after the public became aware of the comments, found 36 percent of respondents saying they the remarks made them less likely to vote for Caprio. Although polling in Rhode Island is not as abundant as in some other locales, the average of polls compiled by the website RealClearPolitics.com shows Chafee leading the pack by 8 points, with Caprio and Robitaille effectively tied for second place.
Chafee, the former Republican senator who was ousted from office by the voters in 2006 and left the G.O.P. the following year, has run a well-financed campaign. State records show he outspent Caprio for most of October, although the Democratic Governors Association weighed in by spending more than $1 million on ads attacking Chafee for advocating a 1 % sales tax on items now exempt from the state's sales tax.
That Chafee has stayed competitive while advocating such a proposal in a tough economy, and in a state where the unemployment rate for each of the last two months has reached or exceeded 11.5 percent -- nearly two points above the national average -- is a testament to voters' long affinity with the Chafee political brand. Lincoln's father John was a senator before his death in 1999, when his son occupied the seat.
James Rosen joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in 1999. He currently serves as the chief Washington correspondent and hosts the online show "The Foxhole." His latest book is "A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century" (Crown Forum, October 4, 2016).