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Battle for the Senate: Rhode Island

— If Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the Senate's lonely Republican moderate, defeats conservative Steve Laffey in Tuesday's primary, would be it correct to see that as a rebuff of President Bush? asks MSNBC.com's Tom Curry, writing from Cranston, RI. After all, Chafee did vote "no" on the Alito nomination, on the Bush tax cuts, and on the Iraq war resolution. And just last week, he stymied UN Ambassador John Bolton's renomination. So Curry asked Chafee yesterday morning if a victory for him should be read as voters thumbing their noses at Bush. His answer: "Yes, for the unaffiliated (voters) more so, certainly."

And the unaffiliated -- read: independent -- voters may well determine the outcome here: They can vote in tomorrow's GOP primary, and there are about 365,000 of them, five times the number of registered GOP voters in this blue state.

Laffey, the scrappy mayor of Cranston, is giving Chafee a run for his money. Chafee was standing by the side of Route 4 in North Kingstown, RI yesterday, saying in a conversational tone to the cars zooming by at 60 mph, "Good morning, vote Chafee, have a good time at the beach." A half-dozen staffers were with him, each toting a Chafee sign, and motorists responded with honking horns, waves, some thumbs up, a few thumbs down and one guy who shouted with disdain, "Liberals!" as his car sped past.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole, the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, seems to have to gone on a spending binge here in her effort to save Chafee, filling voters' mailboxes with a torrent of anti-Laffey mailers. Curry cites one that features a photo illustration of a Hiroshima-style atomic mushroom cloud, blasting the roof off a house. "Steve Laffey is blowing property taxes through the roof," warns its headline. (Laffey said he did raise taxes to avert a fiscal crisis but later cut them.)

Chafee told Curry that Laffey's recent warm-and-fuzzy TV ad, featuring his wife, had burnished the Mayor's standing with voters, "trying to de-horn him, if you will, soften his image," said Chafee. So Chafee unleashed a negative ad, accusing Laffey of stealing documents from a firm he once worked for, and calling Laffey "untrustworthy, unpredictable, unreliable." Accusing Chafee of "character assassination," Laffey said Sunday, "Senator Chafee is going to wake up on September 13 and have to look at himself in the mirror; he's not going to like what he did."