PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The Democratic candidate for Rhode Island governor, widely seen as more conservative than the independent seeking to lead the heavily Democratic state, said Monday that President Barack Obama can "shove it" after learning Obama would not endorse him.
Frank Caprio's campaign said last week that he would welcome the president's endorsement. But on Monday, the same day Obama made 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."
It was a surprising about-face for Caprio, the state's general treasurer, whose 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.
White House spokesman Bill Burton said Obama decided not to endorse Caprio out of respect for independent candidate Lincoln Chafee, a onetime Republican who endorsed Obama in 2008. Obama did not address Caprio's remarks or take questions during a tour of a Woonsocket factory on Monday and subsequent speech to reporters.
The White House wouldn't comment directly on Caprio's comments, which appeared to be a calculated move by a candidate facing a tight race against Chafee 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."
When pressed for another example of Obama refusing to endorse a Democrat, Burton told reporters aboard Air Force One: "You've got me stumped."
Though the White House said it's not endorsing anyone in the Rhode Island 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 said he would not "take the bait." 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" 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 and questioned wby Obama would not endorse a Democratic candidate.
"He's the Democratic nominee, for goodness' sakes," he said. "It's really insulting (to Caprio), when you think about it."
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Warwick, R.I., contributed to this report.