PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee has sometimes considered quitting the Republican Party because he's often uncomfortable with conservative stands on such issues as taxes and war.
On Tuesday, the party might quit him.
Chafee, 53, faces a strong challenge in Tuesday's Republican primary and could lose to Stephen Laffey, 44, the two-term mayor of Cranston, R.I.
The outcome could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate. Because Rhode Island is generally a liberal state, Chafee is considered a stronger candidate to hold the seat for Republicans in November, although he'd face a close contest against likely Democratic nominee Sheldon Whitehouse.
Laffey would enter a fall campaign a decided underdog, with several independent analysts saying that if he's the Republican nominee, the Democrats will have a much better chance of picking up the seat. Democrats need to gain six seats to take a majority of the 100-member Senate.
The increasingly negative Chafee-Laffey clash—backed by competing interests from Washington financing attack ads—is difficult to handicap. One recent poll showed Chafee leading 53-39 percent. Another showed Laffey leading 51-34.
A few hundred votes could swing the outcome. Turnout could be as low as 12,000.
"I think we're going to be fine, but we have to get our people out," Chafee campaign manager Ian Lang said. "With a low turnout, you're always nervous."
Key to the election is Chafee's record after one Senate term.
Overall, his votes are middle of the road; the National Journal, a respected Washington weekly, rated him close to the center on economic, social and foreign-policy questions.
But he's bucked President Bush and his party on several high-profile issues, notably voting against tax cuts, the Iraq war, oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. He's also against banning gay marriage and so-called partial-birth abortion.
"The senator is a proud Republican," Lang said. "The Republican Party in Washington may be more conservative. But there is a long tradition of moderate Republicans in the Northeast, from Pennsylvania to Maine."
Lang argued that only a moderate can win in a state that gave Democrat Al Gore his highest-percentage victory in 2000, and Democrat John Kerry his second-highest in 2004. "There is no question that Steve Laffey cannot win a general election here," Lang said.
Conservative critics don't see Chafee as a traditional Republican moderate, however.
"I'm very disappointed in Lincoln Chafee," said Zak Asatrian, of West Warwick, R.I. "I don't believe he's represented the Republican Party. He panders to the Democratic side of the state."
"There is no doubt he is the most liberal Republican in the U.S. Senate," says the Club for Growth, a pro-tax-cut group that's poured more than $500,000 into TV ads to defeat Chafee.
President Bush might agree. Chafee not only has opposed many of Bush's top priorities, he also withdrew his endorsement of Bush in 2004 and cast a protest vote for the president's father.
Yet Bush and the Republican establishment are backing Chafee as the best chance to hold the seat for their party. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., the chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, tried to talk Laffey out of the race. After failing, she's spent or committed more than $550,000 on ads and mail to defeat him.
Laffey is convinced that he'll have the last word by winning Tuesday and in November.
"We're going to win; we're going to win convincingly," he said during a break from door-to-door campaigning with his family in West Warwick.
His calling card is his record as Cranston's mayor, where he turned around a city with abysmal finances.
"We went from being the worst-run city in America with the lowest bond rating in America to having Money magazine say we're the most livable city in Rhode Island and the 78th most livable city in America."
He promises that, if elected to the Senate, he'll vote to make the president's tax cuts permanent, work to end dependence on foreign oil and support controls on illegal immigration.
But he's bitter about Republican attacks on him. One national ad ripped him for making money off oil companies when he headed a brokerage firm. "I could have sworn the president and Dick Cheney worked in the oil industry," he said.
He contends that the ads have backfired, and are one reason that Dole's committee has raised far less money than her Democratic counterpart's. "My rich friends, guys who run things, have been telling those people, `Forget it, I'm not sending you any more money,'" he said.
Asked whether he'd welcome general-election fundraising help from Bush and Dole if he won Tuesday's primary, Laffey said: "Tell them to stay in Washington. ... Tell him no. We don't need him. Tell him to sit it out."
For more on the two campaigns online, go to:
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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