R.I.'s Chafee, Whitehouse Meet in Debate

The Associated Press
Thursday, October 19, 2006; 11:47 PM

WARWICK, R.I. -- The candidates for U.S. Senate stuck to familiar themes Thursday in their first televised debate, with Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse saying Washington needs a change while incumbent Lincoln Chafee tried to highlight what he called his own "honesty, courage and foresight."

"I've not actually been in sync with the president's agenda," said Chafee, frequently bringing up his vote against authorizing the war in Iraq. He was the only Republican senator to do so.

Whitehouse repeatedly brought up the Republican Party, calling it fundamentalist, right-wing and partisan. He said that while Chafee often votes against it on issues such as the environment and Iraq, the senator enables the party to advance policies that he, and many Rhode Islanders, oppose.

"He votes to put that leadership in place, and once that leadership is in place, the die is cast," Whitehouse said.

The message has caught on with many voters in Rhode Island, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans more than 3 to 1 and where President Bush is exceedingly unpopular.

Democrats see the Rhode Island seat as key in their bid to retake the Senate, and a poll released Thursday night showed Whitehouse apparently leading Chafee. The WPRI-TV poll of 402 voters taken Oct. 11-14 showed Whitehouse with 46 percent and Chafee with 42 percent, and 12 percent undecided. The margin of error was plus or minus 5 percentage points.

Chafee said it was important for the state to have members of both parties in the Senate, and said he had a record of bipartisanship.

"When there's any kind of close vote, Sen. Chafee's right in the middle of it," he said, adding, "If Mr. Whitehouse is elected, he'll be a back-bencher and fall into the vast pool of go-along, get along."

In the past week, Chafee has tried to shift the focus from his Republican Party to Whitehouse's record as a former attorney general and U.S. attorney. He has accused Whitehouse in two previous radio debates of turning a blind eye to corruption by friends of powerful Democrats when he was a prosecutor.

Whitehouse has countered that Chafee has his facts wrong, and that Chafee's brother was among those who commended him for his leadership when he left his U.S. attorney post.

The hourlong debate was held before a live audience at Toll Gate High School and broadcast on WPRI.

© 2006 The Associated Press