Lincoln Chafee is determined not to let the American public forget that Hillary Clinton voted to invade Iraq.
Chafee’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, which he’ll launch Wednesday outside Washington, is likely to secure him a spot on the debate stage with Clinton, where he can press her on her war record.
Democrats are expected to debate at least six times, starting later this year. At least one debate will be held in each of the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada.
Challenging Clinton on her war vote was a key piece of underdog Barack Obama’s strategy eight years ago. Chafee and Clinton were both in the Senate in October 2002, when 77 senators voted to give President George W. Bush broad authority to wage war.
Chafee, then a Republican senator from Rhode Island, was the sole no vote in his caucus. Clinton, a U.S. senator from New York in 2002, voted yes. She last year said she regretted that vote.
“I thought I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had. And I wasn’t alone in getting it wrong. But I still got it wrong. Plain and simple,” she wrote in her book “Hard Choices.”
Chafee remains outraged.
“She didn’t do her homework and we live with the ramifications today,” Chafee told CNN last month. “And so you may say that’s 12 years ago, but we live with it today and it’s a big motivator for why I’m running.”
Whether voters share his ire enough to support him is questionable.
Chafee also could face questions from Democratic primary voters about his record on national security. While he opposed the war, he joined Clinton and almost all senators in voting in 2001 for the USA Patriot Act and, in 2006, to keep expiring parts of the law.
He has since said he was surprised that officials used the act for bulk collection of domestic phone records, authority that expired Monday. The Senate on Tuesday renewed the National Security Agency’s surveillance power but curbed its access to phone records.
Chafee starts as a decided long shot. He’s the fourth prominent Democrat to join the presidential race.
Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has a passionate following among liberals, as he urges sweeping government cures for the nation’s domestic ills. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who entered the race Saturday, stresses similar themes and reminds audiences that at 52 he’s part of a new generation of politicians.
Chafee, 62, who starts with no apparent organization or significant fundraising base, has never won office as a Democrat.
As a Republican, he was appointed to the Senate in 1999, after his father, Sen. John Chafee, died. Lincoln Chafee was elected to a full term the next year, and like many New England Republicans of that era, he became increasingly uncomfortable with the party’s views on social issues and the war.
Chafee did not vote for Bush in 2004 and lost his Senate seat in 2006 to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat. The next year, Chafee became an independent, supported Obama in 2008 and called Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin a “cocky wacko.”
In 2010, running as an independent, Chafee won the governorship. He didn’t run for a second term and left office in January highly unpopular as the state continued to reel from the effects of the Great Recession. He became a Democrat in 2013.
Chafee’s style is far different from that of most presidential candidates. He’s soft-spoken and unassuming. He got a classics degree at Brown University. After graduating, Chafee studied horseshoeing at Montana State University and worked as a blacksmith at harness racing tracks for seven years.
Should terrorism become even more of a top-tier issue in the 2016 presidential race, Chafee could have some impact. “Who knows?” said Robert Guttman, director of George Mason University’s Center for Politics and Foreign Relations in Virginia, the site of Chafee’s campaign kickoff Wednesday. “All you have to do is show you can be a winner and people will follow you.”
That could be difficult. Chafee’s best early chance would appear to be in nearby New Hampshire. But a state survey April 24-May 3 found 8 percent of Democrats viewed him favorably, 10 percent unfavorably, 21 percent were neutral and 61 percent didn’t know.