WARWICK, R.I. — Senate Republicans face the prospect of one less seat Wednesday morning, party leaders say, if Sen. Lincoln Chafee, a liberal, loses his primary here tomorrow to conservative challenger Stephen Laffey.
“Mr. Laffey has no chance to win a general election. We would find ourselves down a seat going into the November elections,” said Dan Ronayne, spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC).
Mr. Ronayne has said the committee will not back Mr. Laffey if he wins, but is confident that Mr. Chafee will prevail.
“If Laffey wins, [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid is one step closer to being majority leader,” agreed David Winston, a District-based Republican pollster.
In a bitterly competitive election year, every seat counts. Polls indicate that Mr. Laffey would lose badly to the presumed Democratic challenger, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, in this Democratic state.
As a result, the national Republican machine has devoted time, money and resources to securing a primary victory for Mr. Chafee. This support came even though the incumbent opposes party leaders on key issues ranging from abortion to tax cuts, and repeatedly criticizes President Bush, whom Mr. Chafee says he didn’t vote for in 2004.
The Republican Party has sponsored TV ads and sent volunteers here for a get-out-the-vote effort for Mr. Chafee’s re-election. So intense is concern and desire for him to win that Senate Republicans last week delayed a committee vote to confirm U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton, after Mr. Chafee said he would use the hearing to question the administration’s Middle East policy.
Such stands score points for Mr. Chafee with Democrats and independents here, but have angered conservatives.
Darrell West, a professor of political science at Brown University, said the Rhode Island primary is “a battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party.”
“Many Republicans are unhappy with how Chafee has opposed the president,” Mr. West said.
That divide helped Mr. Laffey, mayor of Cranston, to make tomorrow’s primary a tossup. Two polls last week showed conflicting results: One gave a decided advantage to Mr. Laffey; the other gave Mr. Chafee a clear edge.
Mr. Laffey, 44, backed by the fiscally conservative Club for Growth, campaigned as a Washington outsider and reformer who, unlike Mr. Chafee, would cut federal taxes and spending and get things done.
Mr. Laffey said top Republicans such as Karl Rove and NRSC Chairman Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina are trying to defeat him because “they are about power” and don’t like his aggressiveness. He pushed his 26-page paper on how to win the war on terrorism by reducing dependence on Middle East oil.
Mr. Chafee and supporters stress that he works with both parties and is a calm, trustworthy presence in increasingly partisan Washington.
“They want someone in the middle,” Mr. Chafee, 53, said of voters.
Last month, Democrats in Connecticut had a similar internal primary battle. Voters ended up ousting Sen. Joe Lieberman in favor of a more liberal Democrat that supporters said was more in line with the party.
Now from the flip side, Republicans in Rhode Island face a similar choice tomorrow. But although Mr. Lieberman now is running as an independent, Mr. Chafee does not have that option should he lose.
Republicans insist that he won’t lose. Republicans leaders’ assistance to Mr. Chafee in the primary, however, could alienate some of the incumbent’s liberal supporters.
Asked about this, Mr. Chafee said that having Republicans such as first lady Laura Bush campaign for him sends a message: “I can work with anybody.”
A self-described “populist” blogger on a Web site called Rhode Island’s Future (www.rifuture.org) posted a picture in July of Mrs. Bush campaigning for Mr. Chafee.
The blogger lamented, “Who wants to ‘Keep Chafee?’ Answer: George W. & Laura Bush. Solution: Remove Chafee.”
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