Rhode Island May Face Life Without a Chafee in Office

It's hard for many in Rhode Island to imagine the state without a Chafee in statewide office, but this fall, Republican incumbent Sen. Lincoln Chafee is fighting for his political life.

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This is a tough time to be a Republican running for Congress, especially in the Northeast. Take the very blue state of Rhodes Island. President Bush's job approval rating there stands at just 22 percent. So it's no surprise that incumbent Senator Lincoln Chafee is locked in a race for his political survival against former State General Attorney Sheldon Whitehouse.

NPR's Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON: In Rhode Island, it sometimes sounds like the candidate running the hardest against the Republican agenda is the Republican, Lincoln Chafee.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Woman #1: Lincoln Chafee, the lone Republican vote against the war in Iraq, the deciding vote to protect clean air standards, against tax cuts for the rich…

LIASSON: As Chafee's ad suggests, he is the most liberal Republican in the Senate. He even voted against the President for reelection. But as long as there is a big R after Chafee's name, Sheldon Whitehouse has a big target.

(Soundbite of political ad)

Unidentified Man #1: If Lincoln Chafee is so opposed to George Bush, why is Bush so determined to reelect Chafee? Because Bush needs Chafee to keep Republican control of the Senate.

LIASSON: Partisan control of the Senate is an unusual message for a political campaign. But Sheldon Whitehouse says in Rhode Island, voters are politically savvy and they get that concept.

Mr. SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democratic Senatorial Candidate, Rhode Island): You've got to remember we're a pretty strong political culture here. You can more or less walk around Rhode Island on the tops of the yard signs without ever touching ground. So it's not a concept that Rhode Islanders are having any difficulty taking on that the leadership purely is the key issue and really does set the agenda and determine the course of the country.

(Soundbite of applause)

LIASSON: Yesterday, Sheldon Whitehouse was campaigning at City View Manor, a senior center in East Providence.

Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Very nice to see you. How are you doing?

LIASSON: The mostly female residents seemed to find him simply irresistible.

Unidentified Woman #2: You are handsome in person.

Mr. WHITEHOUSE: Oh, aren't you sweet. Thank you.

Unidentified Woman #3: I know you. I see you in the television.

LIASSON: Whitehouse is not nearly as well known in Rhode Island as Lincoln Chafee. The Chafees are political royalty here. There's been a Chafee representing the state as senator or governor over the course of the last 40 years.

Ardis Sherbet(ph) supports Sheldon Whitehouse. She's a Democrat, who, in the past, has voted for Lincoln Chafee and his late father, John, who had the Senate seat before him.

Ms. ARDIS SHERBET (Whitehouse Supporter): Eighty-two years old, so I've been voting a long time.

LIASSON: But why are you going to switch this year?

Ms. SHERBET: Because I'm not crazy about Chafee, because he's for President Bush and I don't like that.

LIASSON: Of course, Chafee says he votes against the president all the time.

Ms. SHERBET: Oh, sure. But that president needs him.

LIASSON: Sherbet is voting for Whitehouse in the hopes that Democrats will control the Senate. Charles Tuddle(ph), another resident at City View Manor, wants the same thing. But Tuddle's bond with the Chafees are too deep to break. So he says he'll cast his vote for the incumbent again.

Mr. CHARLES TUDDLE (Chafee Supporter): I knew his father and I've known him. And they'll vote with the party, yes. But when there are things that would affect us locally, they vote the way the people want them to vote.

LIASSON: Chafee and Whitehouse are cut from the same cloth. Both from old Yankee Brahmin families, their fathers roomed together at Yale; their teenage sons are in the same class at a private school in Providence.

They agree on stem cell research, abortion and gay marriage. So what's left to argue about? In a radio debate on Monday, they argued about Whitehouse's tenure as a prosecutor, as Chafee tried to bring the debate back to local issues.

Senator LINCOLN CHAFEE (Republican, Rhode Island): Eight years as a top law enforcement official in Rhode Island, eight years and not one single conviction for political corruption.

LIASSON: Whitehouse had this rejoinder.

Mr. WHITEHOUSE: What meant the most to me was the plaque that I received on my departure from the U.S. Attorney's Office which commended me for my solid gold leadership of that office. It was given to me on behalf of the men and women in that office, but it was prepared and presented to me by your brother, Zachariah.

LIASSON: Rhode Island is a very small state.

(Soundbite of cash register)

LIASSON: Just how small was obvious yesterday at a supermarket on the east side of Providence where Lincoln Chafee stood next to the shopping carts and asked for votes.

Sen. CHAFEE: Senator Chafee.

Unidentified Man #2: Oh, you're a terrific senator, so…

LIASSON: In just half an hour of handshaking, Chafee finds lots of family connections.

Unidentified Man #3: I know you're brother up at Saint Martin's Church up the (unintelligible).

Unidentified Woman #3: My first job was with your father.

Unidentified Man #4: (Unintelligible) about your father?

LIASSON: Everyone knows the Chafees, including this man whose friend met Chafee's father naked after a squash match.

Unidentified Man #5: He turn's over. There's see a man standing there nude. Chafee, damn glad to meet you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CHAFEE: Well, that's locker rooms.

Unidentified Man #5: I'm voting for you.

Mr. CHAFEE: Thank you.

Unidentified Man #5: I am.

LIASSON: Even after many years in public office, Chafee is still a little shy and awkward in public. But Brown University political scientist Darrell West says he's very popular in Rhode Island.

Professor DARRELL WEST (Professor of Political Science, Brown University): His personal approval ratings actually remain pretty good. Generally, he's been polling anywhere from 51 to 54 percent. So people actually liked the job that he is doing. But in a national race that basically pits a Republican versus a Democrat, people actually want the classic Coke, not the new Coke.

LIASSON: That is, voters may decide that instead of a Republican who votes with the Democrats a lot of the time, they'd rather have a Democrat. On the other hand, in a year and a state where Republicans have to run as independents to survive, no one is better positioned than Senator Lincoln Chafee. Every indication is that this race is a toss-up.

Mara Liasson, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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