Laffey decries party, Beltway in his 'outsider' campaign

CRANSTON, R.I. – If Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) were any other Republican senator running in a blue state, his move last week to block the nomination of United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on an expected party-line vote might smack of election-year politics.

CRANSTON, R.I. – If Sen. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) were any other Republican senator running in a blue state, his move last week to block the nomination of United Nations Ambassador John Bolton on an expected party-line vote might smack of election-year politics.

But the move, which came five days before Chafee’s heated primary culminates today, was business as usual for arguably the most moderate — or, as his party detractors say, liberal — Republican in the Senate.

While Chafee recently called his support for President Bush’s agenda “spotty at best,” his primary opponent, Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey, is more conservative and likely would be a more dependable vote for the party. But with the Republican establishment entrenched against him in the name of keeping the seat Republican, Laffey has harnessed an anti-Washington approach to campaigning, hoping his outsider credentials will help him best Chafee then overcome some long odds to win in the general in this heavily independent but very blue state.

In Rhode Island, a slight majority of the state’s voters are registered independents. Of the rest, there are more than three registered Democrats for every Republican.

Running in an open primary that could be largely decided by those independent voters, Laffey tries to avoid labels like “conservative” and “Republican.” Early in the campaign he stressed Chafee’s distance from the party and his own conservative credentials, but now he talks more about how Chafee has made himself irrelevant and how Washington needs someone who effects change instead of a “nice guy” who passively embodies independence.

He points to the fact that Chafee was among the last to decide on how he would vote on the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and now the senator’s indecision on Bolton (Chafee cites recent events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and said they raise new questions about Bolton). Laffey also has called for Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation and classifies two of the four major plans on his website as “liberal” in nature.

Meanwhile, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse is waiting in the wings. With no significant primary opposition, he has been able to focus his efforts on each of the Republicans while they duke it out amongst themselves.

Polls have given vastly different indications about who enters the Republican primary ahead — with one showing Laffey in the lead by 17 points and one showing Chafee up 14. But they all show Chafee and Whitehouse neck-and-neck in the general election while Laffey would have about 25-30 points to make up against the Democrat.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) has argued that Laffey cannot beat Whitehouse and the party has mobilized in support of Chafee, even though he has bucked them time and time again — on President Bush’s tax cuts, on the war in Iraq, on social issues, on Alito and now possibly on Bolton.

The NRSC also said last week that it would not support Laffey should he win the primary. Laffey said that the NRSC, the Republican National Committee and the White House have asked him to withdraw.

Visiting with Cranston constituents at a well-attended Greek festival in the parking lot of a local church, Laffey insists he doesn’t want the national party’s help. And it’s quite apparent that he has grown tired being asked whether he can win in the general.

“It’s unfortunate that people concentrate on something that’s so foolish,” said Laffey, who has predicted he would “crush” Whitehouse. “You can’t do a general election poll ‘til this primary’s done anyways. … Linc Chafee can’t win the general election.”

Laffey has made a trademark of his “blitzes” in which he runs — literally — from door to door meeting voters in this tiny state of about a million people. Asked how many people he visits who express concern about his electability, he initially says “nobody” and then concedes that it’s more like “maybe one out of 100, one out of 200 people.”

Donna Barrett of Warwick counts herself as one of those concerned Laffey voters. Sitting beneath a tent at the festival on Saturday evening and chatting with Laffey, she later explains that she’s got to “vote my conscience” but says she is “a little bit nervous” that a Laffey victory today would hand Democrats the seat in November.

But she also says people she talks to aren’t concerned about it. She attributes her skepticism to that fact that she pays more attention to political news than most people.

Barrett buys into Laffey’s outsider approach. She doesn’t dislike Chafee and says she wishes Laffey were an independent, but she says there’s something to be said for a new face for the sake of a new face considering the state of affairs in Washington.

“I just don’t think anybody dislikes Chafee,” she said of the former Warwick mayor, who took his seat in 1999 after the death of his father, popular longtime Republican Sen. John Chafee. “It’s going to be tough for me not to vote for Chafee.”

Laffey, meanwhile, with his brash, in-your-face style, is a more polished campaigner. At the festival he says he is there as mayor and not a candidate, though he reminds at least a few people about today’s primary as he frenetically leaps from one person to another, kissing the women and constantly grasping hands. His style plays to his message of populism and outworking everybody.

Chafee, meanwhile, has tried to paint Laffey’s intensity as instability. Standing in front of his campaign headquarters before a barbeque Saturday morning, the sign his supporters hold up behind him for the TV cameras says it all: “Keep Chafee.” A Chafee has held the seat for three decades; Laffey, meanwhile, is too unpredictable, Chafee says.

Speaking frequently in the third person as if to emphasize the Chafee name, the senator describes his style as “a very stable, thoughtful, calm, steady approach, whereas my opponent’s more likely to say whatever suits the audience he’s talking to at the moment. And I think Rhode Islanders are going to see that.”