Sen. Joe Lieberman's battle in Connecticut has been dominating summer headlines. But beyond the glare of the national media, Rhode Island is gearing up for an equally heated Senate race as Republican Lincoln Chafee fights to hold on to his seat.
The Democrats, fighting to gain control of the Senate, see Rhode Island as one of their best chances. After all, Chafee's independence on issues such as Iraq and abortion has made staunch conservatives hostile toward him, as he faces a tough primary challenge against Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. The primary winner will go up against former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse in the general election.
But despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans 7 to 2 in Rhode Island, the GOP is hardly giving up.
"This is definitely going to be a close election, but the bottom line is, the only Republican who has a chance of winning the general election is Sen. Chafee," said Brian Nick, Republican National Senatorial Committee Communications Director.
And he may have some reason for his confidence. Chafee is no ordinary Republican — he is a pro-abortion rights, pro-gay marriage maverick who voted against the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, Supreme Court Justice Alito's nomination and Bush himself in the 2004 election. This means he may be the GOP's best hope for a seat in one of the most liberal of the 50 states.
Chafee isn't a typical politician either. After attending Brown University, he went on to Montana State University horseshoeing school. For seven years, he worked as a blacksmith at harness racetracks in the U.S. and Canada. But politics was in his blood. His father, John Chafee, was governor of the state and also held the Senate seat Lincoln now holds. His great-grandfather was also Rhode Island governor, giving him strong name recognition among Rhode Islanders.
But name recognition may not carry enough weight to win a primary. Recent polls show Chafee and Laffey running neck and neck. And that has the national Republican party worried because they fear Laffey couldn't win a general election against Whitehouse.
"Laffey has no chance of winning a general election. The only thing he can do is disrupt this race and try to pull off an upset in the Republican primary. We'd be giving away the seat to a liberal Democrat (if we supported Laffey)," Nick of the RNSC said. "We'd much rather work for a Republican."
So Republicans are rolling out the red carpet for high-profile campaigners. First lady Laura Bush, and Sens. Elizabeth Dole and John McCain have been just a few of Rhode Island's prominent visitors in recent months.
Laffey, however, says he is not concerned about losing support from national Republicans. In fact, he seems to relish it. He recently chose not to attend the state's GOP convention, calling it a "charade," and he's not giving up the fight easily despite recent polls showing Chafee ahead slightly.
"I think insiders just back insiders. Washington political bosses don't care about Rhode Islanders. They just care about power," Laffey said. "Washington insiders are backing a Rhode Island race in viciousness that is unparalleled."
The RNSC is concerned that while Laffey, a conservative, may be more in tune with the party's ideals on the national level, he is out of touch with more moderate Rhode Island voters.
"Laffey is a more typical Republican ideologically, but may be way out of line with the state itself. Even a lot of Republicans in Rhode Island are not very conservative," said Jennifer Duffy, editor of the Cook Political Report. "One of the things that you haven't seen in this primary is the social issues. They're not talking about abortion and gay marriage, for example."
"There is a realization on the part of Republicans that you're not going to have a typical conservative Republican candidate in Rhode Island. And they're happy with someone who will vote with them when they can," Cook adds.
But Chafee, too, must walk a delicate line. He must appeal to his base, a moderate group of Republicans and Independents who have supported him since 1999, as well as persuade Democrats to vote for him in the Ocean State.
He is on his way, having managed to convince about 14,500 Democrats to either renounce any party affiliation or register as Republicans so they could vote for him in the primary, the Providence Journal first reported. Almost 13,600 answered his call and another 987 changed their registration to Republican.
But Stuart Rothenberg points out in a Roll Call column that the "fundamentals of the race, including Chafee's liberalism and the normal ideological dynamic in a GOP primary, suggest that Laffey is no worse than even money to beat the senator."
Perhaps that's why Chafee is quick to not completely disassociate as a Republican as he seeks to win the primary; his staff readily points out that Chafee is a Republican, albeit in the New England tradition.
"The Republican party has a lot of different avenues. Fiscal responsibility is a traditional Republican value, and Republicans believe in the environment. Sen. Chafee carries on those strong Republican values," said Ian Lang, Chafee's campaign manager.
And despite their recent differences, Chafee has actually voted with the Republican party most of the time, CBS News political consultant Dotty Lynch says. Congressional Quarterly's vote studies show Chafee supported President Bush on an annual average of 77 percent of votes on which Bush took a position during his first five years in the White House.
"Sen. Chafee will win as a Republican in September, he will win as a Republican in November and he (will) return to the Senate in January as a Republican," Lang adds. "He has spent his entire Republican career building the Republican party."
But even if Chafee wins, he's in for a tough general election against Whitehouse in a state where Bush's approval rating is among the bottom five in the nation. Some recent polls show a very tight race in the general election. A poll released July 14 by the independent pollster Rasmussen Reports finds Whitehouse with a five-point lead over Chafee, 46 percent to 41.
Whitehouse also recently surpassed the Chafee campaign in fundraising, as he's garnered more national attention in recent months. He says someone from his office speaks to a representative at the DSCC nearly every day. Whitehouse has been hosting fundraisers across the country, and perhaps it's paying off. Two out of every three dollars raised so far have come from out of state, and at a recent fundraiser in New York, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle headlined at an event at Martin Scorsese's home.
"Democrats have a real sense we're going to take the Senate back. Why settle for second best and send a moderate Republican senator to support his party whose interests are adverse to your own," Whitehouse says, referring to Chafee.
But Whitehouse says he's prepared to run against either Chafee or Laffey. "Both of them would just be going back down to Washington and vote for the Republican leadership most of the time. It doesn't matter much who it comes down to."
Whitehouse believes that while the race hasn't generated as much attention outside of the state as other Senate races, Rhode Islanders are following it closely and are well-informed about each party's platform.
"Rhode Islanders are politically sophisticated. It's said that politics is their favorite indoor sport," he said.
By Melissa McNamara