"I think that there's actually a quiet majority out there of people who are much more in the middle and support moderate progressive Republicans. They just don't have the microphone," said Mark McKinnon, adviser to former President George W. Bush. "There's a huge support for people that reflect the middle of America, people like Lincoln Chafees and Olympia Snowes and [Democrat] Evan Bayhs -- what we call centrist Republicans. That's where 60 percent of America is ideologically."
The Tea Party movement has emerged as a force in Rhode Island politics, but their numbers have yet to translate into votes.
In a poll released Tuesday by WPRI TV and pollster Joe Fleming, GOP candidate John F. Robitaille only garnered 19 percent support, while Caprio was leading Chafee by a 3 percentage point margin, 33-30. The poll was conducted Sept. 22-26 between 500 likely voters. Other recent polls have shown similar results, with either Caprio or Chafee in the lead by a slim margin.
Caprio has an upper hand when it comes to fundraising and also an endorsement from Bill Clinton. But Chafee has his own band of supporters, and he has the endorsement of New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
"The race looks like a toss-up at this point," said Fleming, and the real momentum is only beginning to develop, with both sides launching negative campaign ads in the last week. "The race is just heating up right now."
Chafee is one of a handful of high-profile gubernatorial candidates running as independents, others being Tom Horner in Minnesota, Tim Cahill in Massachusetts and former Democrat Eliot Cutler, running for governor of Maine.
Rhode Island is one of two states where the independent candidate for governor has been surging in the polls, the other being Minnesota. Unlike Rhode Island, however, independents have a strong record of success in Minnesota. Professional wrestler Jesse Ventura won the governorship there in 1999 despite trailing in the polls.
There have been no independent governors since Ventura left office in 2003.