Brown: Time for a Surprise?
Former California Gov. May Succeed in Rhode Island
With a contrarian tradition as old as the state itself, Rhode Island could be a state to watch as the Democratic presidential candidates square off in eight state primaries today.
Rhode Island and Providence Plantations--the state's official name--first rankled the nation's leaders in the 1780s when it refused to pay for the Revolutionary War and dragged its feet on ratifying the new constitution.
While Rhode Island residents say they no longer hold a grudge against the Constitutional Convention, there are signs that voters there want to upset the current political establishment again--and that may mean voting for former California Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. today.
"We in Rhode Island know what it's like to live with a corrupt state government," says Robert Arelliano, head of Brown's effort in the state. "People are aware of the fears, [the] dangers of government."
Arelliano, like many Brown supporters, believes that the candidate's anti-establishment message may have found a receptive audience in Rhode Island, which has been hurt in recent years by government corruption and numerous bank failures.
"I believe this is the onset of something big," says Arelliano, adding that Brown has made two visits to Rhode Island--more than any other candidate in a state where voters appreciate a personal touch.
"He's really starting to catch fire," Arelliano says.
An Uphill Battle
But Brown faces an uphill battle. Many observers expect former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas to win the same voters that gave former Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis a 70 percent victory in the state's 1988 primary.
And Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton has received endorsements from many of the state's Democratic leaders, including Gov. Bruce Sundlun.
"I would expect Tsongas to do very well--this is despite the fact that Clinton has massive organization here," says Darrell West, associate professor of political science at Brown University and an expert on Rhode Island politics.
"Clinton supporters are like a who's of Rhode Island politics," adds West, who heads the university's polling efforts through the Taubman Center for Public Policy.
Despite expectations, it is difficult to predict how many votes each candidate will win. The last poll taken in the state, conducted by West's group last month, indicated that two-thirds of Rhode Island voters were undecided.
With the race up in the air, Brown supporters have taken a slightly unorthodox approach to canvassing.
"We're really into getting out the video tape [explaining Brown's positions], which is really the best way to win votes," says Arelliano.
Chance for a Surprise
Even those who doubt that the socially liberal Brown, who practices Zen Buddhism, can capture voters in the 64 percent Catholic state are willing to acknowledge that he could surprise them.
This state of contrarians, Rhode Islanders will remind you, is prochoice because the mostly Italian Catholics don't listen to their mostly Irish priests.
"No one expects [Brown] to win," says West. "But he could surprise here."