National Health-Care Debate Plays Out in Rhode Island Race

AS Capitol Hill lawmakers hunker down for weeks of health-care debate during their traditional August recess, challengers hope to gain an edge on home turf.

Democrat Linda Kushner, one of two women challengers left in the US Senate race, faces an uphill battle against three-term incumbent Sen. John Chafee (R) of Rhode Island, who is expected to win the GOP primary against Thomas Post. She aims to use the momentum of the national health-care debate to help focus her message.

``Rhode Island has the fourth highest percentage of senior citizens in the country,'' Ms. Kushner told residents of the Cumberland Senior Center in Cumberland, R.I. last week. ``Senator Chaffee's health plan that we've heard so much about doesn't include long-term care and prescription drugs. This is not being responsive to the needs of the state.''

The scant score of residents in attendance applaud her comments. ``Health care is the 100 percent important issue,'' says center resident Walter Ross, after her talk. ``Chafee's plan hasn't gone far enough. It stops cold on what's needed most - more health care for the elderly.''

Resident Frances McIntyre says she pays more than $100 a month for prescription medicines, but, she quietly adds, ``I still plan to vote for Chafee.''

Ms. McIntyre may be closer to the political pulse of the state. A statewide poll conducted by Brown University last month shows Senator Chafee leading Kushner by 56 to 14 percent. In a previous survey in February, Chafee led by 49 to 23 percent.

``The national health-care debate is playing in this election, and it is a big plus for John Chafee,'' says Darrell West, director of the John Hazen White Sr. Public Opinion Laboratory at Brown University in Providence, R.I. ``In early surveys, people said, `We like [Chafee] but we don't know what he's doing for the state in D.C.' But Chafee has been on television so many times because of his health plan recently that it's put that to rest.

``It could be a strong issue for Kushner, but she hasn't been able to get her message out. She just hasn't raised enough money.''

Kushner concedes she will need up to $1.5 million to be competitive in this race. Thus far she says she has raised $400,000. But she insists that the national health-care debate is one reason she is running behind. ``All during the '80s, John Chafee received $153,975 from health-care industry PACs. But in the last 17 months, as he has drafted leading legislation, he has received ... $144,300 from health PACs - $42,000 in the last three months alone,'' said Kushner.

Chafee's staff shrug off the suggestion. ``She accepts PAC money,'' says campaign manager Keith Lang.

For him, the health-care debate has a more immediate impact: The event board in Chafee's Cranston, R.I., headquarters is blank. ``We can't schedule events until we know the senator will be back in the state, and with the health care debate, who knows?''

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