A day after he told reporters that President Barack Obama can take his decision not to endorse anyone in the race for Rhode Island governor and “shove it,” the Democratic candidate for the post said he has no regrets about his remarks.
“I stand by my comments. The White House wanted to play politics instead of coming in to Rhode Island and caring about what’s going on in the households across Rhode Island,” Frank Caprio, the Ocean State’s general treasurer, told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira on Tuesday.
Although Caprio is widely seen as more conservative than the independent seeking to lead the heavily Democratic state, Caprio’s chances of being endorsed by Obama may have hit two snags.
For one thing, Caprio backed Hillary Rodham Clinton during the 2008 presidential primaries; also, his opponent, one-time Republican Lincoln Chaffee, is friends with Obama.
“I do support the Clintons and I do look forward to working with President Obama once I’m elected,” Caprio said, adding, “when I get elected, I will go meet with the president and get good things done for Rhode Island.”
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 endorse no one, Caprio angrily told WPRO-AM that Obama can "take his endorsement and really shove it."
“I have the highest level of respect for the president,” Caprio said on TODAY. “This was an endorsement I wasn’t actively seeking, but it was played out in the worst way of backroom politics.”
Caprio’s “shove it” comment was a surprising about-face. His campaign had said as recently as Sunday night that he was looking forward to Obama's visit and that he would accompany the president to two appearances.
Rhode Island's congressional delegation expressed disapproval of Caprio's comments, but the head of the Democratic Governors Association said it was Obama's decision that was disappointing — not the candidate's remarks.
"Frank Caprio has spent his career fighting for the values of the Democratic Party. He deserves the full support of our party and its leaders," said association executive director Nathan Daschle.
The White House wouldn't comment on Caprio's comments, which appeared to be a calculated move by a candidate facing a tight race against independent former Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican who endorsed Obama in 2008, and Republican John Robitaille, who has never held elected office. They are seeking 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."
Chafee 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.
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."
Caprio: Obama plotting with opponent
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 sought 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 to have learned of the decision from a reporter, 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. Obama instead sent Cabinet members, 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 alienated some liberal voters 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 and support the Democrat. Caprio also has contradicted Obama on some important policy positions, such as letting Bush-era tax cuts expire on the wealthiest Americans.
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island called Caprio's comments disappointing and noted the president helped the state get millions in federal for flood recovery, for infrastructure and to close a massive budget deficit. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse called the comments unfortunate, and Rep. Jim Langevin said he did not agree with them.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy defended Caprio's comments as coming in the heat of a campaign.
"You're running on adrenaline, and you're running on emotion," he said.
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 (to Caprio), when you think about it."