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Lieberman Redux in Rhode Island?

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

WARWICK, R.I. -- Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey doesn't run for office, he bounds -- up steps, across lawns, in his quest to unseat Rhode Island's incumbent senator, Lincoln Chafee, in next Tuesday's primary.

"If one of the other candidates knocks on your door, vote for that guy, but they won't," the 44-year-old Laffey assures voters. He's accompanied by his wife, four of his five children and a posse of high school friends, all decked out in trademark Laffey yellow and blue, right down to the double stroller for the youngest Laffeys and his wife's custom-made "Laffey 2006" Converses. (The candidate, who has a Harvard MBA and isn't shy about mentioning it, read a study finding this the optimal color scheme for communicating.)

"This will probably be the first time in 40 years we haven't voted for a man named Chafee, but we've just about had it," Richard Carr, a 62-year-old construction company manager, tells Laffey, referring not just to the current senator but to his late father, John, who was a senator and governor.

After Laffey sprints on, Carr explains his distaste for the younger Chafee: "He is a Republican and he doesn't vote for the president," he says, referring to the senator's 2004 presidential write-in vote for George H.W. Bush.

Is Steve Laffey to Linc Chafee as Ned Lamont was to Joe Lieberman?

Once again an incumbent senator who often breaks with his own party -- this time a Republican -- could find himself toppled. Once again, the opponent is an energetic businessman-turned-politico, milking discontent among the base and disgust with Washington. Once again, outside groups -- in Connecticut the liberal blogs, here the anti-tax Club for Growth -- are stoking voter anger.

It was inevitable, then, that Laffey-Chafee would be cast as the GOP replay of the Connecticut Democratic primary. Yet the analogy goes only so far. The Rhode Island race is more complex, certainly odder and potentially far more momentous.

For angry Democratic voters, a Lamont vote was all but risk-free. Rhode Island is Connecticut with consequences: A Laffey nomination in this heavily Democratic state could imperil GOP control of the Senate. A general election race between the Democratic nominee, former attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse, and a bruised Chafee promises to be close. But nearly the only one who thinks Laffey would beat Whitehouse is Laffey. "I'll crush him," he asserts.

That's doubtful, but Laffey has a serious shot at ousting Chafee. Precisely how serious is unknowable, because the population of Rhode Island Republicans is so minuscule (just 10 percent of registered voters) and so much could turn on the wild card of independent voters.

Greeting voters outside the Warwick Stop & Shop, Chafee himself doesn't sound terribly confident. "What I've been surprised at is having a parade of Republican luminaries come in to help me -- highlighted by the first lady -- that didn't have a really strong move from the conservative base in my favor," Chafee says. "Even after that, still the Laffey people were Laffey people."

Hence the spectacle of the Washington Republican establishment rushing to the defense of a man who voted against all the Bush tax cuts, the war in Iraq, the Medicare prescription drug plan and Justice Samuel Alito, and who favors gay marriage and abortion rights and opposes the death penalty for Osama bin Laden.

The Republican Senate campaign committee has plowed hundreds of thousands of dollars into the race, savaging Laffey with ads as brutal as those deployed against any Democrat. One particularly ugly anti-immigrant spot attacks Laffey's acceptance of Mexican matricula cards as identification. (No matter that Laffey opposes the Senate immigration bill -- which Chafee backed -- as too permissive.)

If Connecticut was about unhappiness with Iraq and President Bush, the issues here are more nebulous. The candidates are vying to outdistance each other from Bush, and while Chafee opposed the war and Laffey supports it, Iraq hasn't been a focus.

Instead the race has been partly about personality ("If you looked up demagogue in the dictionary there would be a picture of Steve Laffey," Chafee says), partly about a generalized sense of dissatisfaction with what Laffey terms "big-spending Washington insiders."

Laffey temporarily raised taxes to help rescue Cranston from bankruptcy. "Well, duh, what was the choice?" he says. But he rules out the possibility of any national-level "well, duh" moment. "The corporate welfare gets you $150 billion and [freezing] the nonmilitary discretionary spending gets you $63 billion," he says, throwing in $27 billion more from cutting earmarks. "I just gave you $250 billion and I haven't blinked my eye. So that's where the waste is right there." The solution isn't nearly as simple -- or as painless -- as Laffey asserts.

Still, Laffey, a toolmaker's son who was the first in his family to go to college, is no cookie-cutter conservative. He says his role model in the Senate would be Bobby Kennedy, and he describes himself as a populist reformer, "more of a Teddy Roosevelt kind of Republican." A Senator Laffey would push the federal government to negotiate prices with big drug companies and promote tax breaks to encourage a solar panel on every roof. "By the way, that doesn't sound like a conservative Republican, does it," Laffey asks, part of the running self-commentary he provides.

Whitehouse, for his part, plans to run a similar campaign against either man -- arguing that either would provide a vote, quite possibly the critical one, to empower a Republican majority. Still, he says with the grin of a man who sees a long-shot Senate seat within reach, "I can't wait to find out which."

marcusr@washpost.com

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