Friday, October 27, 2006

Republicans may lose a key Senate seat they’ve fought fiercely to hang onto this year, as liberal Republican Sen. Lincoln Chafee trails his Democratic opponent in Democrat-leaning Rhode Island.

This Senate race, perhaps ironically, has become a referendum on President Bush and the Iraq war, observers say. Though Mr. Chafee often bucks Republicans on issues from taxes to abortion and voted against the Iraq war, Democratic candidate Sheldon Whitehouse has tried to paint him as a boon to the Republican majority and Mr. Bush’s agenda — a theme that seems to have resonated. Mr. Chafee is four to ten percentage points behind in recent polls.

“It has become a referendum on Bush and Iraq and people are blaming Chafee even though he voted against the war. It’s one of the most ironic elections,” said Darrell West, Brown University political science professor.

According to SurveyUSA’s October numbers, Mr. Bush’s approval rating in this tiny state, where most voters register as “unaffiliated,” is the lowest of all 50 states, at 23 percent.

But Republicans say don’t count Mr. Chafee out yet. Earlier this year they gave major time and money to help him fend off a more conservative Republican primary challenger and they succeeded when many thought they wouldn’t. They contend they’ll repeat that on Nov. 7 because Mr. Chafee is an independent voice who matches well with Rhode Island voters and is within striking distance according to the polls, most of which show him within the margin of error.

“This race is neck and neck right now, but at the end of the day Mr. Chafee is going to meet with success and be re-elected,” said Dan Ronayne of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NSRC). “Our focus needs to be on the choice between the two candidates.”

For his part, Mr. Chafee has fought back against the accusation that he is just another Republican by touting his independence on issues such as Iraq, stem-cell research and taxes. He also is trying to steer the race back to local issues — running recent ads criticizing Mr. Whitehouse for being soft on corruption as state attorney general.

Some say it is difficult to steer the race back to local issues this year. “In an election that has in many respects become nationalized, it’s even harder for Chafee to win,” said John Fortier of American Enterprise Institute. “It’s not an election about primarily what you’ve done for Rhode Island.”

But the fight will only get more intense in the final days. The NRSC has run an ad arguing Mr. Whitehouse will support higher taxes — prompting Mr. Whitehouse’s camp to fire back with an ad showing sharks and claiming national Republicans are back to help Mr. Chafee protect Mr. Bush and keep the party in power.

“A Republican-led Senate is not good for Rhode Island. … That is the fundamental issue in the race,” said Alex Swartsel, spokeswoman for Mr. Whitehouse.

Chafee campaign manager Ian Lang said “there’s a reason why Sheldon Whitehouse has only tried to run against George Bush and that’s because [Mr. Whitehouse] doesn’t have a record. They know if they run against the senator’s record they’re not going to win.”

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