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.
But one week into the race, he has already signaled his willingness to follow Republican talking points that paint Dodd as an entrenched Washington politician whose inside-the-Beltway perspective leaves little understanding of the realities faced by Connecticut residents.
That was clear Monday night, when Simmons appeared before the Barkhamsted Republican Town Committee. Waving newspaper accounts of Dodd's recent woes, he excoriated the senator for taking out a "sweetheart mortgage" with a bank he regulated and for moving out of state to run for president.
"I am troubled by what I read [about Dodd], but I am also troubled by what I read about the financial services sector," Simmons told the audience of about 30 Republicans. "The person principally charged with overseeing these matters as the banking system was entering trouble was out in Iowa running for president, missing in action, only to return to blame the crisis on someone else."
Simmons said he won't move to Washington if elected. Instead, he'll commute home to Stonington every weekend, just as he did when he served in the House. "I could make it home in three hours," he said.
Maintaining a strong connection to Connecticut is important. "I don't know what happens, but over time, people become disconnected," he said.
Despite the wounds he has suffered in recent weeks, Dodd remains an aggressive, well-known and well-funded Democratic incumbent in a heavily Democratic state.
He insisted he isn't focused on the 2010 election, which is, after all, 20 months away. "Polls are what they are," he said Friday. "I've been around long enough to know polls can go all kinds of ways."
Instead, Dodd intends to concentrated on fixing the U.S. economy and helping those in need. "If I do my job," he said, "the politics will take care of itself."
When Roy Occhiogrosso, a longtime Connecticut political analyst and a vigorous Dodd supporter, heard that Simmons was running, his first thought was "that's the best they can do?"
Occhiogrosso described Simmons as "a former congressman who was voted out of office, who has run nasty, ugly, divisive campaigns." He predicted a contest between Simmons and Dodd would result in a victory for the Democrat.
National Democratic operatives figure there's still mileage left in a strategy that links Simmons to President Bush, an approach that worked for them in 2006.
"Make no mistake about it: Rob Simmons is no moderate," said Eric Schultz, a spokesman for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee. "This is somebody who was a staunch supporter of George Bush's failed economic policies, and this race will be an opportunity to hold him accountable for that record."
In reality, Simmons dissents from the right wing of the Republican Party on a number of touchstone issues, including gay rights, abortion rights and a range of environmental matters. He's more John Chafee than Rush Limbaugh.
Chafee, a former senator from Rhode Island, was a perfect example of a New England Republican, and he gave Simmons his first job in Washington. It was a summer internship for students, and it paid only a $700 stipend. Simmons, who was in his mid-30s and had a wife and child, took it anyway.
But New England voters of late have shown a distinct distaste for Chafee's heirs, Republicans such as Nancy Johnson, Chris Shays and Simmons himself, each of whom have been bounced from Congress in the past two elections.
Simmons is confident that he can revive the GOP's flagging moderate wing, but he'll need the help of voters such as Bill Bartholic to pull it off.
"I voted for you before, and I'll vote for you again," Bartholic of Brooklyn told Simmons after spotting him at a New London coffee shop. "And I'm a Democrat."
Bartholic said he was always impressed by Simmons' commitment to his constituents during his six years in Congress. "I think he did a good job for the state, bringing jobs to EB," Bartholic said. "He has a lot of energy."
Bartholic is also quick to lavish praise on Rep. Joe Courtney, the Democrat who beat Simmons in 2006 by 83 votes. "Joe Courtney's a good man," Bartholic said.
"There are a lot of good Democrats," added Bartholic's wife, Patricia.
"My mom's a good Democrat," Simmons responded, flashing a grin.
While sipping his hazelnut coffee and nibbling on a banana muffin, Simmons was continually approached by patrons offering a word of encouragement. He chatted with a local minister about a new initiative to fight homelessness and with a woman at a nearby table who is raising money for a program for special education students.
"Rob's one of the good guys," said Bud McAllister, a New London community organizer in a bright yellow T-shirt that proclaimed "Healthcare For All."
Simmons said he is under no illusions. Beating Dodd will take a lot of work and a lot of money; he said Friday he expected to raise $5 million for the effort. The race is among the highest profile Senate contests in the nation, and both parties are likely to invest millions in their quest to win.
"He's a very successful politician," Simmons said of Dodd. "He's the longest-serving senator in Connecticut history. He's heir to his father's name and title. The Dodds are like the Kennedys in Massachusetts.
"Who am I? Rob Simmons. Everything I've done, I've done on my own."
Courant staff writer Rinker Buck contributed to this story.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun