By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 9/12/2006 7:44:54 PM ET 2006-09-12T23:44:54

If Sen. Lincoln Chafee wins Tuesday’s Republican primary in Rhode Island by fending off challenger Steve Laffey , it will likely be independent voters, not Republicans, who push him to victory.

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About 365,000 independents -– five times the number of registered Republicans – are eligible to cast ballots in the Rhode Island GOP primary.

Both Chafee and the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) – which exists solely to elect Republicans to the Senate -- are struggling to beat a Republican, Laffey, who has better conservative and pro-Bush credentials than Chafee does.

“We’re not spending money to defeat a Republican,” said NRSC spokesman Brian Nick. “We’re spending money to help a Republican incumbent.”

Chafee is wooing independents and acknowledges his alienation from some GOP voters.

“I always thought the core Republican base was more likely to go with Laffey,” Chafee said Sunday, adding hopefully that 13,000 Democrats had re-registered as independents in the past six months and therefore will be able to cast ballots for him Tuesday.

Clashing with Bush
Last week, a Rhode Island College poll of 363 Republican voters showed Laffey beating Chafee, 51 percent to 34 percent, with 15 percent undecided.

Although Laura Bush was the guest star in Providence last May at a Chafee fundraiser, he plagues her husband with his votes: “no” on the Samuel Alito Supreme Court nomination, on the Bush tax cuts, on banning partial-birth abortion, and on the Iraq war resolution in 2002.

2006 key racesChafee said Sunday he hasn’t yet carefully read Bush’s proposed legislation on military tribunals for al Qaida operatives at the Guantanamo Navy Base, but he’ll “probably not” vote for it.

Last week he stymied Bush’s nomination of John Bolton as United Nations envoy. Reason: “I’ve been adamant about the administration’s pursuit of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and their failure to back up the rhetoric with action.”

Chafee objects to Israel announcing that it would build 690 more housing units on the West Bank.

“I want to hold on this (Bolton nomination) until I get some answers,” he said.

The senator said he doesn’t enjoy clashing with Bush. “There’s no fun in that; there’s no fun getting into the Senate elevator with the people I have lunch with,” the other 54 Republican senators, after having cast an anti-Bush vote. 

But he said he’s able to disagree without being rancorous. “I need to be able to deliver for Rhode Island. If I’m off with harsh rhetoric and making speeches against the administration along with my votes, I wouldn’t be able to deliver for Rhode Island.”

Laffey, the mayor of Cranston, R.I., a scrappy Reagan Republican who calls for tax cuts and solar energy, seemed to gain momentum in recent weeks partly on the strength of his debate performances against Chafee.

The senator said Sunday that Laffey’s recent TV ad, featuring his wife, had burnished the mayor’s standing with voters, “trying to de-horn him, if you will, soften his image,” said Chafee. “I think that’s had an effect; a lot of people are saying to me they like it and saying, ‘he’s got a good ad.’”

The senator shrugged a bit sheepishly as he explained how he’d responded by airing a negative ad, accusing Laffey of stealing documents from a firm he once worked for, calling him “untrustworthy, unpredictable, unreliable.”

Chafee's conservative-liberal schism
Chafee is the son of the state’s beloved patrician former governor and senator, John Chafee, whose Senate seat he more or less inherited after his dad died in 1999.

Usually the most courtly of gentlemen, Chaffee is running a risk by airing such bare-knuckled attack ads. Voters used to the genteel Chafee may not like the hard-edged one.

Chafee’s alienation from the conservative wing of his party goes all the way back to 1964, when, as an 11-year old boy, he sat with the Rhode Island delegation at the GOP national convention in San Francisco. As governor, his father was head of the delegation.

Liberal New York governor Nelson Rockefeller got up to address the convention and Barry Goldwater’s delegates “booed and booed and booed,” Chafee recalled Sunday as he reminisced about the conservative-liberal schism at the convention.

'No one is tougher than me'
Meanwhile, at the Greek festival at the Church of the Annunciation in Cranston on Sunday, as Laffey chatted with voters, retiree Howard Fleming of Warwick came up and told him, “Do me a favor; you’ve got to knock (Democratic candidate Sheldon) Whitehouse off, he’s going to be a tough one.” Laffey shot back, “No one is tougher than me.”

Explaining his support for Laffey, Fleming said, “I think Sen. Chafee is a little wishy-washy. He’s not his father. I like Lincoln as a person and as a gentleman; but as a politician, no.” Fleming cited Chafee’s opposition to the Alito and Bolton nominations.

But Pete McIntyre, Republican town councilman in Portsmouth R.I., said, “I still don’t think Laffey can beat Sheldon Whitehouse.” McIntyre will vote for Chafee, explaining, “I consider myself a conservative Republican and I’m not happy with some of the votes he (Chafee) casts, but I’m looking at the bigger picture. I don’t want to see the Senate go Democratic.”

Laffey’s answer to that: “The person who can not beat Sheldon Whitehouse is Linc Chafee. They agree on all the issues and Democrats outnumber Republicans three to one.”

The conservative group, the Club for Growth, is papering the state with its own mailers attacking Chafee as “just another double- talking politician” who “voted this year with Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy over 70 percent of the time.”

NRSC chief Sen. Elizabeth Dole is spending lavishly to save Chafee, money that could be spent defeating Democratic candidates in such close states as Tennessee and Ohio.

Even as early as a year ago the NRSC felt compelled to broadcast television ads in this state attacking Laffey.

In the last several days, a blizzard of NRSC mailers has hit Rhode Island homes. One NRSC mailer features a photo illustration of a Hiroshima-style atomic mushroom cloud, blasting the roof off a house. “Steve Laffey is blowing property taxes through the roof,” warns its headline. Laffey said he did raise Cranston taxes to avert a fiscal crisis, but later cut them.

“They’ve disgraced themselves,” Laffey said of Dole and the NRSC. “Breaking Ronald Reagan’s Eleventh Commandment. Has anyone ever seen anything like this?”

But NRSC spokesman Nick said it's odd for Laffey to invoke Reagan’s “Thou shalt not speak ill of a fellow Republican,” when he has been attacking Chafee for over a year. Nick’s bottom line: Laffey is “unelectable,” partly because he is “so bombastic.”

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