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Rhode Island race could prove critical

PROVIDENCE, R.I.—It has come to this: If Republicans are to hold onto the U.S. Senate, they may need to do it by way of their most liberal member and one of President Bush's most difficult nemeses, Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island.

Yet for Chafee to win, he must repudiate Bush's policies in Iraq in the strongest terms, persuading skeptics that he'll retain the independence Rhode Islanders admire without succumbing to GOP pressure on Iraq or a host of other issues.

It makes for a delicate dance here in the tiny Ocean State, where Bush's approval ratings dwell at 22 percent, but Chafee insists he's not counting seats on the national level.

"We'll sort that out after Nov. 7," Chafee said Sunday. "I have such a challenge, I just am not worried about other states or what might happen. I just am trying to win."

A day before the election, the race in Rhode Island suddenly is so tight that the latest McClatchy-MSNBC poll has Chafee—nearly been written off by some political observers—ahead by a point.

Among likely voters, he has a 46-45 lead over Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse. Just two weeks ago, Chafee trailed by 5 points.

Should Chafee win and Republicans retain control, "it would be very ironic," said Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University here. "There's no way the Democrats get control of the Senate without getting Rhode Island."

Power in the Senate could be critical in the waning years of Bush's second term. A Democratic-controlled Senate could stymie any Supreme Court picks should a seat open up, and its leaders could decide to launch investigations into the Bush administration's policies in Iraq or involving other matters.

While pundits talked Sunday about his importance to Republicans in Washington, Chafee was shaking hands outside a suburban supermarket under a chilly blue sky, reminding voters again and again that he voted against the Iraq invasion.

Chafee certainly doesn't look the stereotypical Republican, with long, graying hair that curls over the collar of his tweedy sports coat and a blue plaid scarf wrapped around his neck, an ensemble that comes off as more humanities college professor than GOP politico.

When Republican Gov. Donald Carcieri happened to drop by the same grocery parking lot Sunday for his own re-election hand-shaking, his booming how-are-you's drowned out Chafee's soft-spoken greetings.

In this independently minded state, Maggie Pizzuti, an administrative assistant from East Providence, epitomizes the incumbent's challenge. She breezed out of the grocery and past Chafee on Sunday with a grin on her face.

"You're not bad, but I hate Bush, so I have a hard time voting for you," she shouted. Chafee hastened to stop her and explain that he voted against the war and that if re-elected, he would be in Washington four years longer than Bush.

But as Pizzuti loaded bags into her Saab, she wasn't convinced.

"I'm afraid he'll continue voting with Bush," said Pizzuti, 52, who voted Democratic back in 2000. She glanced back at Chafee, still lingering by the grocery. "I'm thinking, `Maybe.'"

Those are the undecideds Chafee wants, and he thinks they're slowly coming his way. He credits his rise in the polls to recent endorsements given him by major newspapers here, and to a new attack on his opponent's record as state attorney general.

In the past two weeks, Chafee has begun hammering Whitehouse for failing to convict anyone of public corruption—an important issue in Rhode Island—during the Democrat's tenure as the state's top law enforcement official.

The push reflects a national Republican strategy to make this election about local politics, not a national referendum on the president.

"I've been hitting hard on a legitimate issue," Chafee said.

At a fall festival in an Armenian cultural center, Chafee threaded his way among families carrying paper plates of kabob and pilaf, smiling and listening.

Why didn't you go after Osama bin Laden instead of Saddam Hussein, an elderly man asked.

"Big mistake," Chafee agreed, nodding. "I voted against it."

"We created a big mess," the man said angrily, then smiled. "Good luck, sir."

Republicans may be counting on him, but Chafee said he isn't thinking about party responsibility these days.

"I don't look at it that way," he said. "I disagree with the national agenda so much." And though the National Republican Committee has brought in a pair of television ads for Chafee, he doesn't really want much help. In Rhode Island that RNC disclaimer, he said, "has the potential to hurt me."

Chafee, standing in the parking lot of the Egavian Cultural Center outside the festival, happily ticked through his tide of no's on the GOP agenda: invading Iraq, Bush's tax cuts, the flag-burning amendment, the gay-marriage amendment, the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

And then he pointed across downtown Providence, to a small gold statue atop the Rhode Island state capitol dome, glinting in the low afternoon sun.

That's the independent man, he said, put there to commemorate Rhode Island's holdout in voting for the U.S. Constitution until a Bill of Rights was passed as well.

Chafee feels kinship to that statuette.

"We have this history of being independent," Chafee said. "I think when a lot of Rhode Islanders think of Lincoln Chafee, they think of the independent man."

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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