Democrats see the Rhode Island seat as key in their bid to retake the Senate, and polls show Whitehouse with an apparent lead over Chafee. A poll released Thursday night, conducted by CBS affiliate WPRI-TV of Providence, R.I., showed Whitehouse leading Chafee 46 percent to 42 percent, with 12 percent undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.
The two candidates squared off in a heated exchange Thursday during their first televised debate. Sticking to familiar themes, Whitehouse said Washington needs a change while Chafee tried to highlight what he called his own "honesty, courage and foresight."
"I've not actually been in synch with the president's agenda," said Chafee, who frequently brought up his vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. He was the only Republican senator to do so.
In the past week, Chafee has tried to shift the focus from his party to Whitehouse's record as a former attorney general and U.S. attorney. He has accused Whitehouse in two previous radio debates of turning a blind eye to corruption by friends of powerful Democrats when he was a prosecutor.
Whitehouse has countered that Chafee has his facts wrong — and that Chafee's brother was among those who commended him for his leadership when he left his U.S. attorney post.
Chafee said it was important for the state to have members of both parties in the Senate, and said he had a record of bipartisanship.
"When there's any kind of close vote, Sen. Chafee's right in the middle of it," he said, adding, "If Mr. Whitehouse is elected, he'll be a back-bencher and fall into the vast pool of go-along, get along."
Whitehouse repeatedly brought up the Republican Party, calling it fundamentalist, right-wing and partisan. He said that while Chafee often votes against it on issues such as the environment and Iraq, the senator enables the party to advance policies that he and many Rhode Islanders oppose.
"He votes to put that leadership in place, and once that leadership is in place, the die is cast," Whitehouse said.
The message has caught on with many voters in Rhode Island, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1 and where President Bush is exceedingly unpopular.
A group of moderate Republicans is sending help to Sen. Chafee in his bid to keep his seat. The Washington-based Republican Main Street Partnership said it will start running radio ads next week, in addition to contributing direct mail and sending about two dozen volunteers to Rhode Island.
The one-hour debate was held before a live audience at Toll Gate High School and broadcast on WPRI.