First a local newspaper reported that Martha Rainville, a GOP candidate for the Vermont at-large House seat, had said she would decline if President Bush offered to campaign for her in the state. She later said she just wouldn’t ask for it.
Then Rainville publicly deliberated over whether she should accept money from the PAC of Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.). She later accepted it.
And earlier this month Rainville suggested that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld should think about resigning. She later said she wasn’t recommending it.
Rainville’s first few months as a candidate have been characterized by a series of clarifications, explanations and qualifications regarding her opinions about Republican leaders, and Democrats have seized on them. As the recently retired Vermont National Guard adjutant general aims to pull off a come-from-behind victory against Democratic state Senate President Pro Tem Peter Welch, she said the few public-relations bumps she’s encountered along the way are just part of the learning curve.
“I think all of those are examples of learning how to state what you think very clearly and succinctly, even when you feel that the issue is really a little more complex than might be easily reflected in a brief statement,” Rainville said. “I am learning that.”
Welch campaign spokesman Andrew Savage said Rainville has changed her tune only after the public reacted negatively to what she was saying.
“Rainville’s finger-to-the-wind style of politics runs counter to the Vermont delegation’s long tradition of taking principled stands,” he said.
Rainville explained that she has worked with the press before in her job as adjutant general and simply is adjusting to being able to speak more freely than she could in her previous job.
The learning process will continue Friday when she appears next to first lady Laura Bush at a $5,000-per-couple private party and a $200-per-person public luncheon to raise money for her campaign. It is Rainville’s first major fundraiser and first VIP visitor to the district.
It’s a pivotal time for the campaign. Saturday is the state Republican convention, which includes straw polls on House and Senate candidates.
Rainville is considered the favorite for the Republican nomination among three candidates, including state Sen. Mark Shepard and retired restaurant owner Dennis Morrisseau. She will face them in a September primary before taking on Welch for the open seat, which is vacant because Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is running for Senate.
The GOP has been surprisingly enthused about her candidacy considering the state’s famously liberal politics. But last week was particularly rough for Rainville as three local editorial boards harshly criticized her communication skills in the wake of her comments and clarifications regarding Rumsfeld’s resignation.
The Barre Montpelier Times Argus accused her of “taking double talk to the level of an art form” and said her clarifications could no longer be chalked up to political inexperience. After a sit-down with Rainville, the Brattleboro Reformer opined: “you can’t help but be a little disappointed with her” because she hadn’t developed a clear voice on the issues. The Valley News piled on, noting that she is “either very confused or is too timid to tell voters what she really thinks.”
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Ed Patru said it is reasonable for Rainville to have her own opinions and that meeting with voters in the coming weeks and months should help her start driving her agenda.
“I think, at that point, we’ll really get a better flavor of who Martha Rainville really is,” Patru said.
Eric Davis, a Vermont politics expert and professor at Middlebury College, said Rainville’s inexperience is compounded by a relatively inexperienced staff, which gives Welch an advantage. But Davis maintained that the communication issues aren’t necessarily hurting her right now.
“I think, at this point, this is still very much an insider’s thing,” Davis said. “I don’t think that this particular issue is clicking with the general public much yet.”
When asked yesterday if Rainville has a competent staff, NRCC Chairman Rep. Tom Reynolds (R-N.Y.) said only, “Sure.”
Rainville says she believes it’s still early in the campaign and the communications problems won’t hurt her at the polls come November. She trails Welch by nine points, according to a poll released last week by Research 2000, a nonpartisan firm based in Rockville, Md. But 57 percent of those polled were undecided.
Rainville is optimistic about her chances, even though she acknowledges having to spend a significant amount of time revising public statements.
“It’s meant I’ve spent more time trying to have this discussion with different groups I’ve spoken with and be able to explain what I’ve said and what I really feel and what I think about the situation,” she said. “And when I’ve done that, people have really understood, and most have agreed with me.”
Jonathan E. Kaplan contributed to this report.