Clawing for Votes, Chafee Steers Race Toward Gutter

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 2, 2006

CRANSTON, R.I. -- Sen. Lincoln D. Chafee (R-R.I.) always sounds so polite and sincere, even when he's wrapping his hands around his opponent's throat.

"Eight years as a top law enforcement official in Rhode Island and not a single successful conviction of a public official," Chafee said during a debate Monday night with his Democratic challenger, Sheldon Whitehouse. "He's always looking after the power brokers and his own political career."

The attack left the former state attorney general seething. Chafee is "just making this stuff up entirely out of whole cloth," Whitehouse shot back. A similar onslaught knocked Stephen Laffey off course in the final weeks before the GOP primary, forcing the Cranston mayor to deny that he had taunted firefighters and doctored his résumé. Robert A. Weygand got a dose of nice-guy negativism in 2000, when Chafee accused the Democratic former congressman of "embroidering the truth" about the age of his dog.

What happened to the affable fellow who drives a hybrid and studied classics at Brown University? Well, his political career is on the line, and the gutter seems the best hope for salvation. Chafee has slogged through two tough campaigns this year, against a conservative primary opponent and now in the general election against Whitehouse. He survived the first round. Next week, polls suggest, he may not be so lucky.

Whitehouse led Chafee in every poll published in October. Many political observers say that despite the vaunted Chafee name, the national climate has become too hostile for a Republican to survive in one of the most Democratic states. President Bush's approval rating here is 22 percent.

"He's very much the underdog and has been forced into an attack strategy," said Darrell West, a Brown political science professor and pollster. "I can't imagine he's happy about it, but he has to do it. He's being bogged down by Bush's high negatives, and unless he can raise the negatives of his opponent, then he loses."

The candidates agree on just about every major issue: expanded federal support for embryonic stem cell research, gun control, legalizing marijuana use for medical purposes. Both are well-born, with deep roots in this tiny state. Their children attend the same school. Their fathers were roommates at Yale. Without the trash talk, this race would be a snoozer, a battle of the bores.

Whitehouse's message is a simple one: Chafee may be the Senate's most moderate Republican, but he's still a Republican. "To change Washington, we have to change the Senate," reads the tagline of one Whitehouse ad. In another, an image of Chafee fades into a grainy photo of Bush, Vice President Cheney and House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). "Think about it," the announcer warns.

For a while this summer, it wasn't clear whether Chafee would survive the primary, and he needed extensive help from national Republicans. After seven years of bucking his party on major issues, Chafee drew close to the GOP at exactly the wrong time. Whitehouse, who faced a nominal primary challenge, was waiting in the wings, saving his money and savoring the political reverberations of Chafee's survival strategy.

Chafee was appointed to the Senate in 1999 upon the death of his father, the immensely popular senator John H. Chafee, and is known as a cautious and stubbornly independent lawmaker. Despite his pedigree, he is low-key. Barry O'Brien, a wastewater operator, has worked for every Chafee campaign since 1990, when Chafee lost his first run for Warwick mayor, and speaks of the senator as a family member. "He got elected because he was a good guy, an honest guy," O'Brien said. "That means something in Rhode Island."

Although Chafee rarely seeks out the spotlight, he doesn't mince words when it finds him. In 2004, he confessed that he had written in the name of George H.W. Bush as a protest vote against the former president's son. But when asked during the debate Monday whether he was proud of the current president, Chafee declined to say. "I'm opposed to much of his agenda," he responded carefully.

"All the time people tell me, 'Linc, I really like you, but I want to send Bush a message,' " Chafee says in his most recent ad. Seated in front of a model sailboat, he reminds viewers that he was the only Senate Republican to vote against the Iraq war. "I've always stood for principle," Chafee asserts, "even if it meant standing alone."

But to win, Chafee must woo Democrats and left-leaning independents away from Whitehouse. And if he has to bring the former attorney general down a notch, so be it.

Chafee's accusations against Whitehouse revolve around the Democrat's tenure as a crime fighter, a sensitive post in a state with a history of widespread institutional corruption. In one ad, Chafee accuses Whitehouse of failing to investigate corruption allegations at a Providence medical center because of possible ties to Democratic power brokers. Two hospital executives were later convicted in the case. "When corruption in Providence was out of control, Sheldon Whitehouse did nothing," the announcer rumbles. "He put his ambition over duty."

The attacks have infuriated Whitehouse, a 20-year public servant in Rhode Island who has been attorney general and a U.S. attorney. He noted in the debate that the Chafee family has been in Rhode Island public life for 30 years and "has never been involved in conduct like this." Whitehouse described Chafee's tactics as "straight out of the Karl Rove playbook. Pretty soon a candidate like me is playing follow the falsehood."

"I always look at my opponent's record," Chafee responded mildly. "When I see shortcomings, I bring them to the voters' attention."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company