Sen. Chafee Works to Garner Support in Rhode Island U.S. Senate Race

Battered from a scathing GOP primary, Sen. Lincoln Chafee has struggled to gain traction in the general election against a well-financed and well-known Democrat in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans more than three to one.

While Chafee's political views are in line with many voters here — he opposed the Iraq war, voted against President Bush in the last election and supports stem cell research and abortion rights — recent polls show him trailing former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse.

"Given the current political climate nationally, it seems to me it's Whitehouse's race to lose," said Peter Ubertaccio, a political science professor at Stonehill College in Easton, Mass.

Three weeks remain in a race that could help determine control of the U.S. Senate. Democrats must gain six seats to win control, and they see Chafee's as key to reaching that goal.

Whitehouse, who did not have a serious primary opponent, has had a clear, consistent campaign message in TV ads that have been flooding the airwaves for months.

Wendy Schiller, a political science professor at Brown University, sums up Whitehouse's message as: "I'm the man for change."

"He's selling the party, not himself," she said.

One ad, titled "Bush," cuts to the heart of the Whitehouse campaign.

"Bush needs Chafee in the Senate. Doesn't that tell us everything we need to know?" the ad says as it alternates between images of Bush and Chafee.

That's a powerful message in a year of Republican scandals and in a state where a recent poll shows Bush's approval rating at just 22 percent — and ironic since Chafee often clashes with fellow Republicans and the Bush administration.

Chris Bardt, 49, an architect from Providence, said he would vote for Whitehouse because of the national strategy, even though he agrees with Chafee on some issues.

"If Chafee changed parties and became a Democrat overnight, I might vote for Chafee," he said. "But we've got to save the country."

In two radio debates, the most recent on Monday, Chafee has gone on the attack, saying Whitehouse turned a blind eye to public corruption — a persistent problem in Rhode Island — when he was the state attorney general and U.S. attorney. Chafee said it was because friends of powerful Democrats were involved.

Chafee is selling himself as an independent who stands up for his beliefs, regardless of party pressure.

One campaign ad says: "Will Sheldon Whitehouse stand up to the leaders of his party in Washington when they're wrong?"

Stamatis Karapatakis, 43, who owns a Greek restaurant in Providence and lives in East Greenwich, said both candidates' ads were trying to make the other look bad, but they won't influence his vote. He plans to vote for Chafee.

"I vote for the party that's right for me," he said.

Chafee's campaign points out that he broke with his party and many Democrats to vote against authorizing Bush to go to war in Iraq.

"No matter how much he claims to be an independent voice in the Senate, it's still a vote for the Senate with control for the Republicans. That may be too much to overcome this year," Ubertaccio said.

Another problem for Chafee is money. He was forced to spend heavily in the primary, and has run just three ads since the Sept. 12 primary. Whitehouse has run about a half-dozen.

National Democrats have run ads supporting Whitehouse and unflattering to Chafee. But national Republicans, who spent millions to support Chafee during the primary, have so far not spent a dime on TV ads for the general election.

Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University, said he was surprised by that.

"You would think they would want to protect their primary investment," he said. "Unless they're worried about mentioning the word 'Republican' in their ads."

Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said the Rhode Island race remains a priority for the party. But while the Republican National Committee has invested heavily in TV advertising in close Senate races in Ohio, Tennessee and Missouri, it has not done so in Rhode Island.

After a primary in which Chafee was forced to highlight his Republican credentials, and in which Republican help was crucial in his win, he must now walk a fine line. Getting help now from the national party could be a mixed blessing.

"It's a double-edged sword," Chafee said. "The Republican agenda's not popular in Rhode Island."

His campaign had approximately $700,000 cash on hand as of the end of the third quarter, spokesman Ian Lang said. Whitehouse had $1.4 million, its campaign said.

Chafee admits he's had a tough time recovering from the expensive primary.

But Whitehouse has been able to watch Republicans "sinking under the weight of their scandals," Schiller said. "He's just riding the wave of bad Republican press."