CUMBERLAND, R.I. — Only days before what promises to be an incredibly close Republican primary, Sen. Lincoln Chafee had only one event scheduled to meet voters while his opponent planned a weekend of door-to-door campaigning and stops at festivals.
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Polls have shown Chafee running neck-and-neck, or even lagging, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey in the hard-fought race, and pollsters say the outcome will likely depend on which candidate is more successful in getting his supporters to the polls on Tuesday.
Laffey has spent each morning this week waving at commuters as they drive to work and knocking on doors at night. But Chafee, who often seems uncomfortable on the campaign trail, spent much of the week in Washington considering whether to vote to confirm John Bolton as U.N. ambassador. The Senate committee's vote ultimately was delayed.
Chafee's spokesman Ian Lang said he will spend this weekend meeting voters at supermarkets, senior centers and, possibly, local festivals but kept the details of the senator's schedule secret. He said the Republican party has organized hundreds of volunteers to help the senator by knocking on doors and calling voters on his behalf.
"You want to fight for every vote, and we're going to do it," Lang said.
While Chafee has a small army behind him, Laffey insists on campaigning with his family and friends.
"People in Rhode Island want to see the candidate," he said this week as he waved to morning commuters at a busy Cumberland intersection.
He has been staking out the spot for a year. Driver after driver honked Thursday morning as they passed a line of supporters holding signs that read "Laffey U.S. Senate" and "Honk for Laffey" before coming upon the candidate, who held a sign reading "I'm Laffey."
"You know what they know?" Laffey asked. "It's 6:30 in the morning, and I'm out working."
The personal connection will be important for Laffey, who is more conservative than most voters in this Democratic-leaning state. Still, he plans to take the day before the primary off in memory of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Laffey's spokeswoman Nachama Soloveichik said he considers it a day of mourning.
Chafee will campaign on Sept. 11, Lang said.
Keys to the race
Wendy Schiller, a Brown University political science professor who once worked in the Senate, said Chafee needs to focus on connecting with voters.
"Chafee's got a reputation for being not accessible, not effective and not accessible," Schiller said.
That image was heightened Thursday when Senate Republicans delayed the Bolton vote because Chafee said he had unanswered questions about U.S. policy in the Middle East. He takes pride in what he describes as diligent research and careful consideration of the issues.
"Voters want to know that their elected officials have a passion for the office they are seeking," Schiller said.
Chafee said he enjoys his job, but he's less enthusiastic about campaigning. During a recent stop to shake hands outside a supermarket, he noted that he'd rather be home watching a golf tournament.
He's even lukewarm about his own TV ads - saying he dislikes one that criticizes Laffey for raising taxes when Cranston was near bankruptcy. Most voters think Laffey had to do it, Chafee said.
Still, Chafee says Laffey is hypocritical because the mayor has made a promise to oppose federal tax increases a cornerstone of his campaign and promised to vote against any future tax hikes.
"He's not going to be able to keep his pledge because the deficit is going up," Chafee said.
Laffey said he's confident in his platform - a call for low taxes, reduced government spending and development of renewable energy. While Chafee's staff hands out pencils and plastic bracelets bearing the senator's name, Laffey hammers his message home by giving voters a flyer printed with his promises.
"I stake my case on what I think I can accomplish," he said, "and what I think is going to be important for America."
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