Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island is trailing Cranston, R.I., Mayor Stephen Laffey in a bitterly divisive primary contest that offers Democrats their best shot at picking up a seat in one of the nation’s bluest states.
Internal campaign polls show the conservative mayor’s campaign attacks on Mr. Chafee’s liberal voting record — including the incumbent’s opposition to President Bush’s tax cuts and to Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.’s nomination — have struck a responsive chord among Republican voters.
Now Mr. Chafee has fired back with a TV ad that attacks Mr. Laffey’s temperament and character, which the senator’s campaign spokesman describes as “aggressive, confrontational, over the top and bombastic.”
In an interview last week, Mr. Laffey called the ad “a pack of lies.”
“I feel sad that a sitting U.S. senator has to resort to false, negative, personal attacks. But after the primary, he is going to have to look himself in the mirror.”
Characterizing the new ad as “desperation” on the senator’s part a few weeks before the Sept. 12 primary, the two-term mayor said Mr. Chafee “is listening to his Washington handlers and throwing the Hail Mary pass.”
The primary has split Republicans in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than a 2-to-1 margin, setting up a situation that senior Republican campaign officials do not think Mr. Laffey can win. White House strategist Karl Rove and North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole, who heads the National Republican Senatorial Committee, urged Mr. Laffey not to challenge Mr. Chafee, whose cross-party appeal, they said, was the only hope of saving the seat from a Democratic takeover.
Polls showed former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, the Democrats’ expected Senate nominee, leading Mr. Chafee by six percentage points and trouncing Mr. Laffey by 55 percent to 31 percent.
But Mr. Chafee’s more immediate task is luring enough of his Democratic supporters into the Republican primary to keepmore conservative rank-and-file voters from dumping him from the ticket. To be eligible to vote in the Republican primary, Democrats must re-register as “unaffiliated voters,” and more than 14,000 of them have done that so far.
“Chafee’s chances rest on his ability to get a big turnout from unaffiliated voters,” elections analyst Stu Rothenberg told his newsletter subscribers last week. “But the challenger will win registered Republicans, who are more likely to turn out regardless of what unaffiliated voters do.”
The Chafee campaign said this week that the primary race was still a tossup, but one they fully expected to win.
“The main numbers in all the public polls continue to show the senator remains in a very competitive race,” said Chafee spokesman Ian Lang. “Every poll shows that Laffey cannot win in the general election against Whitehouse.”
But while Mr. Chafee is selling his ability to reach out to Democrats and independents, Mr. Laffey is pitching his opposition to higher taxes that he calls “the core issue of the campaign,” one that he says cuts across all the political lines.
“I just tell the truth that Chafee wants to raise taxes on every single American who is working, and when I go campaigning, I don’t find anybody who thinks that’s a good idea,” Mr. Laffey said.