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Chafee's foe saves attacks for Bush [Dec. 14th, 2006|05:43 am]
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Chafee's foe saves attacks for Bush


Hard fight in R.I. for GOP liberal

By Rick Klein, Globe Staff | October 17, 2006

NORTH PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- Sheldon Whitehouse is running against Senator Lincoln D. Chafee. But all he talks about these days is President Bush.


Campaigning in North Providence recently, Whitehouse blasted away at the president. There's the ``mess" in Iraq, the ``disgrace" of the healthcare system, and an administration that's ``in the pocket of the oil and gas industry."

``We need a Senate that will stand up to this administration and ask hard questions, and tell that man [Bush] `no' when he needs to be told `no' to," Whitehouse, the Democratic candidate, told about 150 people who came to North Providence High School for an evening of pasta and politics.

Call it the blue-state Bush effect: While the president emphasizes tough conservative stances on terrorism and taxes to shore up core Republican voters in advance of next month's election, his actions have the opposite effect in predominantly liberal states like Rhode Island, endangering even very moderate GOP incumbents.

Chafee is an unlikely target of Bush-bashing. The scion of a legendary political family in Rhode Island, Chafee is easily the most liberal Republican in the Senate, opposing the Bush administration on tax cuts, the Iraq war, energy policy, a Supreme Court nomination -- even the president's own reelection in 2004.

Yet recent polls show Whitehouse leading, on average, by 5 points; a USA/Today Gallup poll puts him ahead of Chafee by 11 points. This is despite Chafee's continued popularity in his home state, and the fact that few major issues set the candidates apart. The main reason is that Bush's popularity has plunged to 22 percent in Rhode Island, according to the latest Brown University poll, and many voters can't abide a senator who is a member of the same party.

Similar anti-Bush effects are dragging down moderate Republicans in House races in Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York.

``People like Lincoln Chafee, so the best way to beat him is to run against Bush," said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown. ``Whitehouse really wants to nationalize the campaign, while Chafee wants to personalize it and say, `It's me, not George Bush.' That's the campaign right there."

But Bush hasn't allowed Chafee and other moderates to escape his shadow. Starting with the Sept. 11 anniversary, the president has sought to dominate the national discourse, hoping to motivate the Republican base that vaulted him to reelection in 2004.

And even moderate Republican incumbents know that the national party's support cuts both ways. Chafee gladly accepted the fund-raising help of Laura Bush and the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which helped him survive a tough challenge from a more conservative primary opponent last month.

Still, Chafee is running a campaign that, like Whitehouse's, emphasizes his independence from Bush. Earlier this month, he campaigned in Rhode Island alongside the Republican Party's most famous maverick: Senator John McCain of Arizona, a frequent critic of the Bush administration.

In one recent television ad, Chafee says the attacks from the right and the left show that he's ``in the middle, where I've always been, with you." Chafee said in an interview that Rhode Island voters respect him too much to be convinced by Whitehouse that a vote for Chafee equals a vote for Bush.

``The Whitehouse campaign knows that Rhode Islanders appreciate my independence and guts," he said. ``He's not going to make any headway in criticizing any of the votes I've taken or the stances I've taken. It's almost an endorsement."

In Whitehouse, Democrats have a candidate who is Chafee's match in blue-blood upbringing. A graduate of St. Paul's and Yale, he's the son and grandson of career diplomats. Whitehouse's father roomed with Chafee's father at Yale after the two men served in World War II, and the teenage sons of the two candidates are now friends at Providence's Wheeler School.

Whitehouse, who turns 51 on Friday, was a top aide to Governor Bruce Sundlun before being named Rhode Island's US attorney by President Clinton in 1994. He was elected state attorney general in 1998, but lost the Democratic primary for governor in 2002 to a more liberal candidate. Many analysts say that Whitehouse should have been able to beat Myrth York, who had already lost two previous runs for governor.

Now, he's back running a highly disciplined campaign whose major theme is suggested by the catchy, if predictable, slogan that adorns his mailings: ``A Whitehouse in Washington we can trust."

On the major issues, he supports the Democratic Party line, saying repeatedly that he will double the voting strength of Rhode Island's popular senior senator, Democrat Jack Reed. His advertisements, like his stump speech, focus heavily on Bush but only mention Chafee to remind voters that Chafee will vote for a Republican Senate leader.

In North Providence, when he finally got around to referencing Chafee, Whitehouse referred to him only indirectly, as the man who is part of the GOP majority in Congress.

``For God's sake, we can go from Massachusetts all the way down through New Jersey and it's a sea down the Atlantic Seaboard of blue, Democratic senators -- with one little exception here in Rhode Island," Whitehouse said. ``And this November, we've got a chance to do something about that exception."

Whitehouse's message appears to be resonating, even with voters who have long supported Chafee and his father, John, who died in 1999 after a long career as a senator and governor. Edward Courville, an independent voter from North Providence, said he voted for Chafee in his first run for a full term in 2000 -- shortly after he was appointed to fill his father's Senate seat -- but can't bring himself to do it again.

``This isn't about Lincoln Chafee -- a good person," said Courville, a retired car dealer. ``It's basically about the Republican Party. I don't think it has anything to do with the individuals. His vote is a vote for the party."

The deep family ties may be stopping the race from becoming overly personal, but Whitehouse was clear in an interview that he doesn't consider Lincoln Chafee the equal of his father. John Chafee, he said, would have ditched the Republican Party if he saw it taken over by the ``maniacs" who have shifted the GOP to the right under the six years of the Bush administration.

``I think that John Chafee felt very strongly that he held that seat in his own right, and that he was his own man, and that if his party abandoned his principles, he could have become an independent," Whitehouse said. ``I suspect that Linc feels much more bound by tradition, that he's there to hold the family seat, and he doesn't feel the same liberty to walk away from the party that his father served. So he's stuck."

The younger Chafee has a different take. His father would have fought to ``bring the party back" to its moderate roots and would have recognized the value of being a Republican senator in an era of GOP control of Washington, he said.

``If I'm going to get things done for Rhode Island, Republicans control the administration, the Senate, and the House right now," Chafee said. ``To abandon the party at this time is to abandon the state of Rhode Island."

© Copyright 2006 Globe Newspaper Company.
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