updated 9/19/2006 5:36:09 PM ET 2006-09-19T21:36:09

Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee and Democratic challenger Sheldon Whitehouse are neck-and-neck two months before an election that could help decide the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, according to a new Brown University poll.

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If the election were held Tuesday, 40 percent of voters said they would select former attorney general Whitehouse, compared to 39 percent for Chafee.

That lead is negligible because the telephone poll, conducted between Saturday and Monday, questioned 578 likely voters and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Battle for control of Senate
Rhode Island's Senate race is particularly heated this year because Republicans hold a slim majority and want to preserve it. Democrats are trying to close the gap and they view Chafee, a moderate Republican, as vulnerable in a heavily Democratic state.

2006 key racesTuesday's poll is one of the earliest glimpses of voter sentiment since Chafee emerged victorious last week from a bitter Republican primary against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, a social conservative.

Republicans vs. Democrats
Despite the divisive campaign, Chafee seems to have avoided a backlash from Laffey supporters. A breakdown of the poll results shows that Chafee has captured a larger percentage of the Republican vote than Whitehouse has garnered from Democrats. Of course, Democrats outnumber Republicans in Rhode Island by better than three-to-one.

Chafee has at least a slight lead among independents, which is probably a relief for his campaign, said poll director Darrell West. Both candidates are likely to compete heavily for the independent vote since that group outnumbers the ranks of both parties combined.

"He has to feel good about that number," West said. "That's always been Chafee's recipe for election: keep the Republican Party unified and run well among independents."

Chafee has a history of bucking the Bush administration and angering his party's base. He was the lone Republican senator to vote against the war in Iraq. Disgruntled with the current president, he cast a protest write-in vote for the president's father during the last presidential election.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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