Sen. Chaffee, Walking a Tricky Line in the GOP Rhode Island's Lincoln Chafee, the only Senate Republican to vote against going to war in Iraq, is walking a political tightrope in his 2006 election bid. But Chafee says his moderate philosophy is the only way a Republican can survive in Rhode Island.
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Sen. Chaffee, Walking a Tricky Line in the GOP

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Sen. Chaffee, Walking a Tricky Line in the GOP

Sen. Chaffee, Walking a Tricky Line in the GOP

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

In a disciplined political party, no Republican senator strays more often than Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island. Chafee voted against his party's budget cuts. He expressed concern over the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court. Unlike President Bush, Chafee wants a timetable to withdraw from Iraq. And last year, he even said he could not bring himself to vote for the president, so he wrote in the name of President Bush's father. Yet as Chafee prepares his own re-election campaign, he has the support of the Republican establishment. NPR's Brian Naylor explains why.

(Soundbite of traffic)

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

Lincoln Chafee is driving a visitor around Newport, Rhode Island, pointing out the sights, one hand on the wheel, the other opening a map.

Senator LINCOLN CHAFEE (Republican, Rhode Island): ...see on the map. It's just the most perfect harbor.

(Soundbite of crinkling paper)

Sen. CHAFEE: All deep water tucked in around the storms.

NAYLOR: Chafee, a committed environmentalist, is, not surprisingly, driving a hybrid Prius. He just last month voted against a package of budget cuts because it would have allowed oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Chafee drives past the storied Newport mansions the 19th century titans of industry built and called cottages.

Sen. CHAFEE: This is Doris Duke's.

(Soundbite of car alarm)

Sen. CHAFEE: Probably the premier location.

(Soundbite of car doors shutting)

Unidentified Man: Can I help you, sir?

Sen. CHAFEE: Good morning.

Unidentified Man: Good morning, Senator.

Sen. CHAFEE: Yes, good to see you.

Unidentified Man: How are you? Can I help you, sir?

Sen. CHAFEE: No, we're just going to turn around and come out.

Unidentified Man: Oh, I see. OK, sir. I'm sorry. Nice meeting you.

Sen. CHAFEE: Nice to meet you. I'd like to come back and stay another time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NAYLOR: Chafee's face and name are well-known in Rhode Island. He served as mayor of Warwick for seven years and when his father, Senator John Chafee, died in 1999, Lincoln was appointed to the seat. He won it on his own the next year. Chafee has lunch this day with the Newport Chamber of Commerce. He briefs them on a number of issues, including abortion and his concerns with the nomination of Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.

Sen. CHAFEE: I just think with the way this country's being pulled apart on so many issues that now is--would be just not a good time to wade into this divisive issue and start to undo Roe vs. Wade.

NAYLOR: In 2002, Chafee was the only Republican senator to vote against authorizing the war with Iraq. He tells chamber members he never bought the Bush administration's argument that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction even after Chafee visited CIA headquarters.

Sen. CHAFEE: And they showed me satellite pictures and I just--nothing convincing at all. Wanted to talk about their aluminum tubes over there, making uranium or something at Mancini's Hardware and it's (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. CHAFEE: But I was unconvinced.

NAYLOR: Whatever his politics, Chafee's supporters say the senator has done a good job in providing the kind of constituent services that are important to them. Keith Stokes is director of the Newport Chamber.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. KEITH STOKES (Newport Chamber of Commerce): He's helped with federal funding, federal permits, regulatory assistance--anything that we've asked for his staff's been available to us. So from my perspective, what more to ask? I mean, it's not broken. Our Senate seat works on our behalf.

NAYLOR: Chafee's willingness to deviate from the Republican Party line is a necessity in Rhode Island where registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans. T.R. McGrath, who owns a catering company specializing in clam bakes, says he grew up a Democrat, but supports Chafee.

Mr. T.R. McGRATH (Owner, Catering Company): ...seen in Senator Chafee really a willingness to look at both sides, look at both issues, and, you know, as he has mentioned, kind of extend his hand across the aisle.

(Soundbite of crowd)

NAYLOR: McGrath says he would be less inclined to vote for Chafee if the senator were more conservative, and that's a reality that Chafee back in the Prius quickly acknowledges.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Sen. CHAFEE: I wouldn't get elected if I weren't a moderate Republican in Rhode Island. So it's very, very important. And it's the issues I do care about.

NAYLOR: Chafee knows his critics call him a rhino, a Republican in name only. The charge animates the normally soft-spoken senator.

Sen. CHAFEE: I dispute that vigorously. I'd say the age-old Republicans were the fiscal conservatives and it makes me weep to hear the Democrats talking about the deficit. That was a Republican issue. It was a Republican issue to be for the environment. It was a Republican issue to be cautious about international entanglements. I dispute that I'm a Republican in name only. I'm the traditional Republican. I--the way I see it.

(Soundbite of traffic)

NAYLOR: On the second floor of a building housing a Cranston travel agency, Steven Laffey(ph) is mapping out his challenge to Chafee for the Republican Senate nomination. Laffey is Cranston's mayor. He resists being labeled a conservative, though his positions on taxes, spending cuts, abortion and Iraq are well to the right of Chafee.

Mayor STEVEN LAFFEY (Cranston): Senator Chafee's probably a nice guy. I've met him a number of times. But he doesn't stand up and fight for anything. There's no real track record of success. I mean, the transportation bill that was passed had 6,000 earmarks or pork projects. Senator Chafee voted for it. Senator Chafee would like to tax everybody at a higher level. Everybody. Middle-class tax cuts, he wants to put back in and raise again.

NAYLOR: If Chafee survives Laffey's challenge in the primary next September, he'll face a well-financed Democrat in the general election just two months later, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse or Secretary of State Matt Brown. It's part of the tightrope Chafee finds himself on as he runs for re-election. Political science Professor Darrell West of Brown University says Chafee has his work cut out.

Professor DARRELL WEST (Political Science, Brown University): The senator's problem is he faces a challenge both from the right and the left, so this really squeezes him from both sides. And every vote that he makes people evaluate from a standpoint of how it's going to affect his election.

NAYLOR: Lincoln Chafee may not be the most reliable GOP vote. Nonetheless, the Republican Senate Campaign Committee paid for ads attacking Laffey. In an overwhelmingly Democratic state, GOP leaders believe Chafee's brand of pragmatism can best keep the seat in the Republican column. Brian Naylor, NPR News.

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