- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - Having shed his Republican name tag but not his reputation as a successfully centrist U.S. senator, Lincoln Chafee faces better odds than most independent politicians as he moves closer to confirming that he wants to sit in the governor’s chair.

While many independent candidates struggle to get noticed, political analysts and former independent governors say Chafee _ a multimillionaire and son of a former senator _ is an exception with the name recognition, a fundraising network and a political resume to mount a serious run.

“It’s rare you’ll find a candidate in a state who’s well known and well financed,” said Dean Lacy, a Dartmouth College professor of government who has studied independent politicians.

Chafee has created an exploratory committee _ which allowed him to begin fundraising _ has repeatedly expressed interest in running and has stopped just short of declaring himself a candidate.

Candidates without parties typically face an uphill struggle. No sitting governor of a U.S. state is an independent, and only about a half-dozen have been elected since the 20th century began.

Perhaps the most famous was former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura, a third-party candidate who served a single term as Minnesota governor, leaving office in 2003.

Maine has elected two independent governors, while Lowell Weicker Jr. left the GOP after clashing with party conservatives _ much like Chafee _ and was elected governor of Connecticut in 1990.

Other notable independents in the region include Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who supported the Iraq war and won re-election as an independent in 2006 after losing the Democratic primary. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who describes himself as socialist, has served in Congress since 1991.

“You’re out there on your own,” said Weicker, who has residences in Virginia and Connecticut. “It’s not easy, in other words, for just anybody to run as an independent. There’s got to be a built-in constituency out there.”

Chafee declined an interview request to discuss the emerging campaign, but his camp considers Rhode Island promising ground for an independent run. About 48 percent of state voters are unaffiliated with any political party, a group larger than the majority Democrats or Republicans.

The popularity ratings of Republican Gov. Don Carcieri and the Democrats in the General Assembly have both dived as unemployment soars to 10.5 percent, one of the worst jobless rates in the country.

“There is a real desire for something different and something new, given the kinds of issues that the state faces,” said Chafee’s campaign manager, James DeRentis.

At least some voters appear to agree.

“I think the country’s ready for a change,” said Michael McShane, 56, an unaffiliated voter who would consider voting for Chafee. “A lot depends on the individual today. I don’t think anybody’s really tied to, you know, the Democrat, Republican parties the way they used to be.”

Successful independent candidates tend to be fiscal conservatives who are liberal on social issues, Lacy said, and Chafee fits the profile. While a senator, he voted against President George W. Bush’s tax cuts because they would increase the federal deficit. He also supports gay marriage and abortion rights.

Chafee enjoys other advantages new candidates typically lack.

For starters, his family name is already recognizable to many Rhode Island voters. His father, John Chafee, was a Marine who fought in World War II and Korea, a governor, a secretary of the U.S. Navy and a senator from Rhode Island.

Lincoln Chafee was appointed to the U.S. Senate in 1999 to fill the seat left vacant by his father.

He established his own reputation by repeatedly clashing with conservatives in the Republican Party. Chafee was the only Republican senator to vote against the Iraq War. In 2004, he cast a write-in ballot for President George W. Bush’s centrist father rather than vote for his conservative son.

Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse defeated Chafee in a 2006 election that became a referendum on Bush, a deeply unpopular president among Rhode Islanders. Despite voting against Chafee, a poll showed he still had a 63 percent approval rating on Election Day.

Money has proved a second barrier for independent candidates. The 2006 race for governor cost about $2 million for the victor.

“It’s sort of a circular Catch-22,” said former Maine Gov. Angus King, an independent. “In order to get money, you need to convince people you’re credible. In order to convince people you’re credible, you need to show you can raise money.”

Chafee will probably face fewer fundraising obstacles than many newcomers. He raised $4 million in contributions for his failed 2006 Senate re-election bid, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Even if donors are reluctant, Chafee can also tap into a substantial personal fortune to fuel his campaign account.

He was worth at least $38 million in 2006, the last time Chafee had to a file a financial disclosure form in the U.S. Senate.

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