Many drivers roaring toward the beach wave, honk, or flash thumbs up to Sen. Lincoln Chafee and a gaggle of roadside campaign volunteers hoisting "Keep Chafee" signs. Some travelers don't react at all. But one woman scowls and plunges a thumb toward the dashboard.
"It's rare you see a woman [do that]," muses the Republican senator to those standing nearby. "We'll get her in the general [election]!" cries out an aide.
That's if Senator Chafee manages to get to the general election. Monday's GOP primary in Rhode Island will tell whether the soft-spoken, middle-of-the-road incumbent will survive a political climate that's unfriendly to moderates – or whether the state's Republicans prefer a candidate closer to the GOP conservative base, even if that raises the risk of losing the seat in November to a Democrat.
Campaign 2006 is proving to be a scorcher for moderates of both parties, especially in the Northeast, where at least eight of the key races for control of the House and Senate will be decided.
"Moderates in the Northeast are a disappearing species, and this could be the year of the final purge," says Darrell West, a political scientist at Brown University in Providence.
Like fellow moderate Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D) of Connecticut, Chafee could lose the primary to a rival who's more aligned with the base. Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey has run an aggressive campaign, and, heading into the vote, polls show that either candidate could win.
But unlike the Connecticut primary, the Rhode Island contest is not just about Iraq or the candidate's ties to President Bush. It's about whether a politician can hold middle ground when the pull in both parties is to the extremes. It's also about contrasting candidate styles – Chafee, low-key and reflective; Mr. Laffey, high intensity and no shades of gray – in a state so small that one-on-ones with voters can still make a difference.
Chafee is the only Republican senator to have voted against the use of force in Iraq, and has bucked the Bush White House on issues ranging from tax cuts and Social Security to abortion rights and regulation of the environment. He also cast the lone GOP vote against confirmation of Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court. His stands won him enemies among conservative activists, especially the Club for Growth, which hopes to make Chafee its second trophy this primary season.
It's also a key election for the Senate Republican establishment, which is supporting Chafee with advisers, mailings, and ads, as well as a highly targeted get-out-the-vote drive in the last 72 hours.
Early on, the National Republican Senatorial Committee urged Laffey to not get into the race, on the grounds that only a moderate could win a general election in a blue state like Rhode Island.
"The NRSC said I would make a good lieutenant governor ... a job with no power. I said to them: 'Do I look like a lieutenant governor to you?' " says Laffey, a former investment banker, who works the crowd at a Greek festival in Cranston as rapidly as he speaks. Chafee, he says, is "indecisive and irrelevant" in Washington.
National Republican Party groups have poured more than $1 million into the state for Chafee, blanketing Rhode Island with mailings that charge that Laffey is a "tax and spend" politician, "will say anything to get elected," and "just isn't ready for the Senate." The NRSC released a statement last week calling Laffey "unelectable in a general election."
Meanwhile, the Club for Growth, an antitax group, has raised comparable funds for Laffey. Its ads and mailings have been a constant in the state since May, including claims that Chafee "has been awfully busy trying to raise taxes," supports pork projects such as the "bridge to nowhere" in Alaska, and would give Social Security to illegal immigrants.
"Both political parties are being pulled to the extremes," says Chafee.
After Sen. Arlen Specter beat back a challenge from former Rep. Pat Toomey and the Club for Growth in the 2004 Pennsylvania GOP primary, Chafee hired key Specter strategists for his own race. "They have a track record beating the Club for Growth," he says.
In fact, highly intense races are rare in Rhode Island, where only about 1 in 10 voters are registered Republicans. Asked about this race, many at the Lions Club steak fry in West Greenwich say they're tired of all the advertising. "They're slaughtering one another with those ads on TV," says George Mitchell of Cranston, who says he's still on the fence. But the bigger fight for Republicans will come in the general election. "Everyone's mad at Bush, and Republicans are going to get slaughtered because of it. Just look at Connecticut," he adds.
While Laffey likes to "blitz campaign" around the state in a Suburban or a Winnebago, Chafee drives himself in a green Prius. "Senator Chafee likes to criticize, but when you count all the children we put in that Winnebago, we're getting about 80 miles per gallon per person," says Kelly Laffey, Stephen's wife.
The typically low turnout in Rhode Island primary elections – the record was 45,000 back in 1964 – makes this race especially difficult to predict. A recent Rhode Island College poll shows Laffey leading 51 to 34 percent. In response, the NRSC released its own poll, by Public Opinion Strategies, showing Chafee leading 53 to 39 percent.
"I have no faith in polling in this race, because we have no idea how many people are going to turn out," says Jennifer Duffy, who analyzes Senate races for the Cook political report. Almost 50 percent of Rhode Island voters are independents and, unlike Connecticut, independents can vote in this race.
"If we can get turnout up to 45,000, we will prevail," predicts Chafee. National environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters are urging activists in the state to turn out for Chafee.
But Laffey dismisses the projections. "Tuesday will send a real message to the Washington [GOP] elite," he says.
In Cranston, voter Howard Fleming assures the mayor that when a Chafee worker asked whether he was going to support the senator, he said: " 'Yes, to the very end' ... if you get what I mean."