March 22, 2009—Three days after announcing his plan to take on Connecticut's senior senator, Rob Simmons breezed past a bunch of kids sitting in the gym of the Regional Multicultural Magnet School in New London.
It wasn't a political appearance: Simmons was here to talk about moon rocks. "You want to shake the hand of the man who shook the hand of the man who went to the moon?" said the lanky 66-year-old with thinning gray hair and a toothy grin.
A former congressman who was swept aside in the 2006 Democratic wave, Simmons long has been known as a fiscally conservative, socially liberal Republican with a penchant for colorful ties and an exuberant demeanor.
Suddenly, though, he is becoming known as something else: The anti-Dodd.
And right now, that's not a bad thing to be.
U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd has long enjoyed a Teflon reputation - and the blowout vote margins that come with it. But now, Dodd is facing a barrage of criticism on everything from the refinancing of two mortgages to his decision to move his family to Iowa during his 2008 presidential run to his ownership of a cottage in Ireland. Last week's political tempest over his role in paving the way for the AIG bonuses raised new questions about his credibility.
"It's just one thing after another," observed Kenneth Dautrich, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut. "Any legitimate Republican candidate could potentially have a field day on all this stuff."
In 2006, the Iraq war was dividing the nation, and Ned Lamont gained momentum simply because he wasn't Joe Lieberman. The state's junior senator was condemned by many Democrats for his support of the war.
It's now the economy, and Dodd has become, in the eyes of some, the personification of the government's bungling of the bonuses and the target of stewing anger over the economic crisis.
"This time, not being Dodd might be good enough," Dautrich said.
Simmons, of course, isn't the only potential anti-Dodd: Sam S.F. Caligiuri, a conservative state senator from Waterbury; Thomas Foley, a GOP fundraiser and former ambassador to Ireland; and CNBC host Larry Kudlow all have expressed interest in running.
But right now, Simmons is the only declared Republican in the race, and he appears to be the best positioned to unseat the man who has served as the state's senator for 28 years.
A poll released earlier this month by Quinnipiac University showed Simmons in a virtual tie with Dodd. The same poll had Dodd besting Caligiuri, 47 percent to 34 percent, and Kudlow, 46 percent to 34 percent. Both possible contenders have low name-recognition numbers among voters, according to the poll, which did not include questions about Foley.
Those poll results prompted Simmons to announce his candidacy last Sunday. He said he began seriously thinking about running a few weeks earlier, when he left his job as the state's business advocate and an internal GOP poll revealed the depths of Dodd's vulnerability.
"A negative, throw-the-mud campaign ... could be a very damaging campaign to Dodd," Dautrich said. "This is going to be a miserable year for him if he has to spend the next six to nine months fending off negative ads."
"I'm not suggesting Dodd's not a fighter," Dautrich added, "He certainly is. But he is now engaged, at the beginning of a campaign, in things he's never seen before."
And Simmons, Dautrich believes, is capable of staging the kind of intense campaign that the Republicans will need if they hope to win.
Simmons doesn't yet have detailed policy statements; he doesn't even have a website, a staff or any of the other machinery that a serious campaign for the U.S. Senate demands.