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Rhode Island Senator Battles For Seat

Lincoln Chafee headshot, as US Senator of Rhode Island 2004
AP
This article was written by CBSNews.com's Melissa McNamara

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.