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Wrapping Up the GOP U.S. Senate Primary in Rhode Island (posted Sept. 9, 2006)

After all the debates, attacks ads, and grisly phone calls, the Rhode Island Republican primary for U.S. Senate comes down to voter turnout. Of the 671,187 registered voters in the Ocean State, 68,864 are Republican (10%), 236,665 are Democrat (35%), and 365,658 are Independent (55%). Since Independent voters can choose to vote either in the Republican or Democratic primary, their choice of primary carries enormous ramifications for Senator Lincoln Chafee and Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey. Mayor Laffey clearly has the edge among the conservative core voters within the GOP. With his support of President Bush's tax cuts, tough stance on immigration, and sympathy for the Republican foriegn policy, Laffey will win if primary turnout is limited to the traditional GOP base. The Republican base is upset with Senator Chafee's opposition to key parts of the president's agenda (including tax cuts and the Iraq war) and the Senator's overall political moderation. Chafee needs a big turnout from Independents in sympathetic parts of the state to win.

The following is an assessment of how this campaign developed and what to watch in the closing days of the campaign:

1) the debates--Mayor Laffey won most of the debates with his cool style and articulate ability to explain his positions in short and snappy sound bytes. With Republican efforts to portray Laffey as confrontational, unreliable, and non-Senatorial, Laffey's calm answers undermined his opponent's efforts to portray him as lacking the character and temperament to serve in the U.S. Senate. The question is how many people saw the debates or were influenced by the performance of each candidate.

2) political positioning--Laffey has alternated between running as a conservative appealing to the Republican base and a Ross Perot-style populist attacking the Washington establishment. This has allowed Chafee to portray his opponent as a hypocritical demagogue who will say anything to get elected. Will voters buy Laffey's populist message or view him as an unprincipled politician?

3) the ad war--The GOP primary has become one of the nastiest campaigns in recent memory. Laffey has employed a good cop/bad cop routine in which he has broadcast positive spots featuring his family and position on the issues, while the small government Washington organization Club for Growth has pounded Chafee as a tax and spend politician. Chafee has run a mix of positive and negative ads attacking Laffey's background character, while the National Republican Senatorial Committee has run the most hard-hitting ads and mailed very negative flyers. The uncertainty here is who voters blame for the campaign negativity? Will there be a backlash against Chafee for violating his nice guy image or will the negative ads undermine Laffey's populist appeals.

4) phone calls--Supporters of Laffey have used graphic anti-abortion and anti-gay appeals to attempt to rally his conservative base. The question is whether these calls will generate a backlash against Laffey, reinforce voter views that he is an ultra-conservative politician, and create sympathy for Senator Chafee, especially among moderates and Independents?

5) pundit predictions--Most local media analysts on the weekend shows are predicting a narrow Chafee victory in the primary, although few rule out a Laffey upset. On the WPRI-TV show Newsmakers, analysts Arlene Violet and Ian Donnis predicted a Chafee win, while on the WSBE show Lively Experiment, analysts John Holmes, Maureen Moakley, and Darrell West feel Chafee will survive by a whisker. Only Dave Layman indicated he thought Laffey would pull off an upset.