Lincoln Chafee has only spent one full term in the Senate, but the Rhode Island legislator has earned a reputation as a consummate moderate. He voted against the war in Iraq, supports abortion rights and even withdrew his re-election endorsement of President Bush in 2004.
Now, facing a serious challenge from the right in the Sept. 12 primary, Chafee has had to use advertising to nuance his campaign. Although he's generally considered amiable and polite, the tone of his TV spots has become decidedly aggressive.
He went negative against Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey last week, with an ad featuring Rhode Island voters voicing complaints against the challenger. "His ego is the size of the state of Texas," one says; by contrast, another calls "Linc Chafee" -- using his nickname -- "a well-informed decision-maker" who "gets the job done."
Chafee left Laffey out of another ad released a few days later. Instead, he tries to use his moderate image to his advantage, looking right into the camera and saying, "I believe that neither Republicans nor Democrats are always right."
The national party and 527 groups, with the notable exception of the right-wing Club for Growth, are also coming out in full force for the incumbent. But Laffey approaches Chafee only obliquely in his newest spot, suggesting simply that "Washington is going in the wrong direction." Some of his earlier spots do criticize Chafee by name; in recent days, however, the mayor seems to have backed off the attacks and focused on promoting his own character and showcasing his family.
It's tempting to see shades of Connecticut in Chafee's situation. Sen. Joe Lieberman (D), another high-profile moderate who frequently votes with members of the opposing party, lost a strong primary challenge from the more extreme wing of his party and is now running as an independent in his own party of one.
For most of the summer, Chafee's predicament didn't seem as dire. He was consistently polling well ahead of Laffey and enjoying a much bigger lead than Lieberman had. But the picture got cloudier in the last week of August, when two polling outfits released conflicting surveys: Rhode Island College had Laffey up by 17 points, and the NRSC (which has thrown its support behind Chafee) had the incumbent up by 15 points.
Gwen Glazer is managing editor at nationaljournal.com. NationalJournal.com staff writer Patrick Ottenhoff contributed to this report.