Chafee's Narrow Escape

Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, and his wife Stephanie smile as they listen to the cheers of supporters at his election night rally in Providence, RI.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-RI, and his wife Stephanie smile as they listen to the cheers of supporters at his election night rally in Providence, RI., Tuesday night Sept. 12, 2006. Chafee defeated republican challenger Stephen Laffey, mayor of Cranston, R.I., in a close race. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)
AP Photo/Stephan Savoia

This Reporter's Notebook was written by CBS News producer Steve Chaggaris, who was in Rhode Island for Tuesday's Republican Senate primary.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee's political obituary is on hold for now after he overcame an unexpectedly strong primary challenge Tuesday from Cranston Mayor Steve Laffey.

"This is my 10th run for office," he told a crowd of 200 at the Providence Biltmore Hotel, "and I've never had one like this."

No kidding.

It's not often the White House and the national Republican infrastructure has to parachute in to save someone who's on the opposite side of his party on such issues as the Iraq war and the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito.

"You all know me, you all know me," a visibly relieved Chafee told his supporters. "And the voters of Rhode Island hired me to use my best judgment and I have done that on all questions before me."

But as a Rhode Island radio talk show host put it succinctly Tuesday morning, the national Republicans are "not fighting for Lincoln Chafee, they're fighting for the seat."

Polls showed that Laffey would have been demolished in the general election. And in a year when the Democrats are poised to pick up seats in the Senate, the GOP made the decision to hold its nose and do whatever it could, from TV ads to an elaborate get-out-the-vote effort, to help the maverick Chafee.

As the sun rose Tuesday, no one was sure how things would turn out, leading Chafee to grasp for any lucky charm he could come across. After casting his vote in the morning, Chafee noticed he had cast the seventh ballot at his polling location in Warwick.
"Lucky seven," he said, looking uptight and nervous, as he tends to look when he's under pressure.

Later, at the Cafe Bon Ami in Cranston, Laffey lashed out at the White House and national Republicans for writing him off, and for the series of attack ads they put up over the past few weeks.

"Vicious. They're vicious," Laffey told CBS News correspondent Gloria Borger in front of a campaign RV emblazoned with his name. "They've run nothing but vicious, mean, personal character assassination ads that are bold lies."

When asked if he'd accept help from national Republicans if he won, Laffey responded, while holding a large cup of iced tea, "No, nothing. And tell them just to stay back in Washington because the Washington elite are simply divorced from what the real needs of the people are."

While Laffey doesn't have that problem to worry about anymore, Chafee still does as he is now facing a Democratic challenger, Sheldon Whitehouse, who has a good shot at dethroning him in November.

And because Chafee is kicking off the continuation of the fight of his political life, he'll gladly continue to accept plenty of behind-the-scenes support from Republicans in Washington, D.C.

However, that support apparently won't rise all the way to the top: the question of having President Bush campaign on his behalf in the Ocean State is a non-starter.

After his acceptance speech, with loudspeakers blaring Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" in the background, Chafee told Borger that it's probably better if the president kept his distance.

BORGER: Senator, are you going to bring President Bush in here to campaign for you?

CHAFEE: Unlikely.

BORGER: Why not?

CHAFEE: Obvious reasons.

BORGER: And they are?

CHAFEE: Current approval ratings would not be helpful.

Not dwelling on his primary victory, Chafee looked ahead to the sure-to-be-bruising general election fight that begins Wednesday.

"It will take everything we've got," the senator said, as the realization set in that there's another two months of campaigning left. "No rest. No rest."

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    Steve Chaggaris is CBS News' senior political editor.