In a sign of the level of concern that the Chafee camp attaches to Laffey’s challenge, it used a series of radio and television commercials to try to brand the opponent as a hypocrite who calls himself anti-tax, but repeatedly raised taxes in Cranston. Considering how the city was in dire fiscal straits at the time, and tax hikes were probably necessary to bail it out, the criticism seems disingenuous. More recently, the senator and his supporters have found a more relevant theme by questioning Laffey’s ability to function in a legislative body, not to mention his electability in November.

Asked if there’s a contradiction between Laffey’s self-description as a populist and his conservative profile, Chafee says, “Well, he is what he is, and I think that the Rhode Island people have seen him in action. He enjoys a fight, and it seems like everything’s a battle, everywhere — whether that’s a populist or not . . . I don’t think so myself. I think there’s got to be room, especially in this day and age, for trying to bring people together.”

Although he might, at least on the surface, seem to lack Laffey’s intensity, Chafee is no paper tiger. The senator enjoys a number of attributes, not the least being the benefit of incumbency. Ironically, although Laffey’s politics are much more in sync with the Republicans who rule Washington, the national GOP is firmly backing Chafee — and only because he represents the best hope of keeping his Senate seat from the Democrats in the general election. It was also seen as an advantage for him when more than 14,000 Democratic voters switched their affiliation in June to be able to vote in the Republican primary. (By way of comparison, about 45,000 voters took part in the GOP gubernatorial primary in 1994, the highest tally in a Republican primary in Rhode Island.)

On the morning of Monday, June 26, Chafee stopped in downtown Wickford, greeting a small contingent of grateful local officials and residents, presenting an oversized $500,000 check for a Main Street improvement project in North Kingstown. Such events, routine for senators and congressman, certainly help to generate goodwill. In the context of Laffey’s steady attacks on government pork, the event could also be seen as a retort of sorts. Asked about this, Chafee cited a need for some reform in spending practices, “but it’s an issue of I don’t want Mississippi or Nevada to take Rhode Island’s projects, so as long as there’s going to be a pot of earmarks, I’m going to fight for Rhode Island’s share.”

While there have been abuses in the federal appropriation process, Jennifer Duffy, a Rhode Island native who follows Senate races for the Cook Political Report in Washington, notes, “One state’s pork is another state’s necessity,” and she cites the issue as something of a wash in the primary election. While Democrats can be expected to gain seats in the Senate — where the Republicans hold 55 seats — Duffy puts their chances of taking the chamber at only 20 to 25 percent. When it comes to the Rhode Island race, she points to the issue of electability and the difficulty of ousting an incumbent in saying, “I think you’ve got to give Chafee a bit of an edge.”

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