Laffey attacks from the center

The Cranston conservative needs to broaden his support if he’s going to oust Chafee
By IAN DONNIS  |  July 11, 2006

ENDANGERED SPECIES: Although disparaged by critics as a RINO, Chafee holds up his core values as those of traditional Republicans.
When Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey announced last week that he didn’t even want the state Republican Party’s endorsement — a story that attracted prominent play on the front page of the Providence Journal — it marked a textbook move in the upstart’s stiff Republican primary challenge to US Senator Lincoln Chafee.

Since Chafee had a likely lock on the party imprimatur, the posture offered another chance for the challenger to set himself against the status quo, complete with a news release — headlined “Laffey says No Thanks to Party Elite” — in which the mayor asserted with characteristic immodesty, “I belong to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roose¬velt, and Ronald Reagan, and am more interested in the endorsement of each individual Republican primary voter.” Chafee’s campaign, in turn, responded by using Laffey’s boycott of the state Republican convention to question his electability, as well as his commitment to the GOP.

With recent polls showing the two Republicans in a neck-and-neck race, Laffey’s Senate hopes will live or die on how well he can extend support beyond his conservative base in the state’s tiny Republican Party. Most Rhode Island voters are independents and it is they who will likewise decide Chafee’s fate. And with little more than three months until the September 12 primary, the sizzling campaign — already marked by a steady stream of back-and-forth negative advertising between both camps — is about to shift into a higher gear.

Although the two men represent decided stylistic and ideological contrasts, they both serve as lightning rods — Laffey because of his maximum leader-style penchant for confrontation, and Chafee because of his quirky identity amid a small and endangered herd of Republican moderates in the Senate.

Now, having enjoyed a meteoric rise by converting the mayoralty of the state’s third-largest city into a statewide bully pulpit over two terms, Laffey is audaciously trying to leverage his outsized profile into membership in the most elite club in US politics. Full of certitude and restless energy, the 44-year-old self-made multi-millionaire has an intuitive knack for politics and he relishes opportunities to maximize his public exposure. Laffey, naturally, brushes aside questions about how polls show him losing decisively in a potential November match-up with Democratic frontrunner Sheldon Whitehouse. And for now he’s giving Chafee — who essentially inherited his Senate seat after his revered father, John Chafee, died in 1999 — the run of his life.

Is Laffey really a populist?
The need to win over more moderate voters explains why the Laffey camp used the imminent state deadline for switching party affiliation to fuel speculation about whether Chafee, 53, who flirted with the prospect of leaving the GOP in 2001, would run as an independent. “A last-minute switch might be in the cards,” mused a June 22 statement from the Cranston mayor’s campaign, even though Chafee — whose Republicanism is rooted in his role as the scion of one of Rhode Island’s founding “Five Families” — told the Phoenix in 2003 it was “inconceivable” that he would change parties.

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