updated 9/11/2006 4:05:21 PM ET 2006-09-11T20:05:21

Rhode Island Republicans go to the polls Tuesday to choose their nominee in a primary that could affect which party controls the U.S. Senate and sets its legislative agenda.

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Republicans now have a slim majority, and party leaders believe Sen. Lincoln Chafee can help them keep it. But he faces a strong challenge from Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, who is leading in some polls.

The winner of Tuesday's primary will face Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse in November. Polls have shown a Chafee-Whitehouse match would be close, but Whitehouse has a strong lead over Laffey.

"A Laffey victory would be good news for the Democratic party," said John White, a politics professor at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

Republicans have said they will pull out of the state if Laffey wins, and White predicted the Democrats will, too. He said Whitehouse has the resources on his own to beat Laffey, so the Democratic party will likely shift its staff and money from Rhode Island to Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia in an attempt to pick up additional seats in their close Senate races.

A Chafee win would mean a knockdown fight between the two parties.

9/11 campaign break
The candidates kept low profiles on Monday, the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Laffey took the day off from campaigning, while Chafee attended a remembrance ceremony.

Republicans have spent almost $1 million in Rhode Island so far. The National Republican Senatorial Committee and other groups have advertised on Chafee's behalf, and the party has sent paid staff and volunteers to Rhode Island to make phone calls and knock on doors.

Laffey has accepted $1.4 million in advertising and donations from the anti-tax group Club for Growth even as he has railed against special interest groups a hallmark of his campaign.

That spending means this year's Senate race is shaping up to be the most expensive race in Rhode Island history. The three major candidates - Chafee, Laffey and Whitehouse - have spent $6.6 million leading into Tuesday's primaries. Whitehouse has a primary with two other Democrats, but polls show them lagging far behind.

The Ocean State's most expensive election was in 2002 when Republican Don Carcieri and Democrat Myrth York spent $7 million in the governor's race, according to Common Cause of Rhode Island, a nonprofit, nonpartisan government watchdog group.

Republican leaders have sent party stars including Arizona Sen. John McCain and first lady Laura Bush to Rhode Island to raise money for Chafee - even though he declined to vote for President Bush in the last election, writing in a token vote for the president's father instead.

Avoiding the president
Many Republicans annoyed by that vote and Chafee's opposition to the Iraq war and President Bush's tax cuts have gravitated to Laffey. But with Bush's approval rating sinking ever lower in Rhode Island, both candidates have distanced themselves from him in recent debates and campaign stops.

Brown University political science professor Darrell West said Laffey can afford to do this because most Republicans agree with his opposition to tax increases, citizenship for illegal immigrants, abortion and gay marriage.

But Chafee has been forced to reach out to the unaffiliated voters, who make up the majority in this state and are allowed to vote in either party's primary. He talks in one campaign ad about votes that have angered members of both parties, and during recent debates, he emphasized his opposition to the war and the national debt.

"Those are all things that resonate with independents," West said.

'Bare-knuckle' ads
The candidates also have made character an issue. By Tuesday, they and their supporters will have spent $2.8 million to air a slew of harsh attack ads.

One Chafee spot describes Laffey as ill-tempered and shows footage of a city council meeting in which he argued with firefighters. Laffey's ads have accused Chafee of wasteful government spending and being soft on terrorism.

Many voters also have received equally nasty campaign mailings and calls from an anti-abortion group that opposes Chafee. Polls show the negative campaign has damaged both candidates in voters' eyes.

"I think Rhode Island is not used to the bare-knuckle approach," West said.

He and White said the key to winning now is going to be the candidates' ability to get their supporters to the polls. White predicted more people will vote Tuesday than in any previous Republican primary. The record was set in 1994, when about 45,000 people turned out for a gubernatorial primary between former U.S. Rep. Ronald Machtley and Gov. Lincoln Almond.

Final push
The candidates spent the weekend campaigning at ethnic festivals and other events to get out the vote.

Sandra Pomfret, 80, a registered Republican from Cranston - where Laffey serves as mayor - said she will vote for Chafee because she liked his father and appreciates his soft-spoken way.

"He has class," she said.

Rick Grimes, 56, of Pawtucket, is not registered with a party but described himself as a fiscal conservative. After Grimes' employer, General Dynamics, announced layoffs, he said he planned to vote for Laffey.

"I think we need a change," Grimes said.

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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