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Trouble for centrists: Is the Hill headed for a sharper split?

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And in the Senate, the epitome of the Rockefeller Republican, Senator Chafee, is facing a tough primary challenge from Stephen Laffey, the conservative mayor of Cranston, R.I. Mr. Laffey is backed by the antitax, anti-"pork" Club for Growth, a Washington-based group that spent more than $1 million in helping to defeat the moderate Congressman Schwarz last Tuesday. But the Chafee-Laffey race is Club for Growth's marquee contest this cycle. So far, the group's members have sent $600,000 to Laffey, and its political action committee is running ads against Chafee.

If Laffey wins the nomination, polls show the Democratic candidate, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, beating him soundly. In a blue state where a plurality of voters are independent and only 12 percent are registered Republicans, Chafee would seem to represent the Republicans' best shot at keeping that seat. A Rasmussen Reports poll released last week showed Mr. Whitehouse beating Chafee in the general election, 44 percent to 38 percent.

To the Club for Growth, there's nothing to lose in knocking off the incumbent. "Chafee and Whitehouse are alike on economic issues, so there's not much downside," says David Keating, the group's executive director. "The upside with Laffey is large. He could be a transforming figure in Rhode Island and provide a strong outsider voice in Washington."

To people who care about which party controls the Senate – and a Democratic takeover of that chamber is not impossible – Chafee's seat is crucial. And to Republican moderates working hard to protect their own, the argument to Republican primary voters in Rhode Island for nominating Chafee is obvious.

"It's a fact in Rhode Island that if Linc Chafee is defeated in the primary, the Democrats will pick up that seat," says Sarah Chamberlain Resnick, executive director of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership.

It may be Chafee's ironic misfortune that he is up for reelection in a year when Democrats and independents are showing increasing impatience with Republican control of Capitol Hill. In Rhode Island, he is more popular among Democrats than among Republicans – he is the only Republican senator to vote against going to war in Iraq and he did not vote to reelect Presi-dent Bush in 2004 – but he could end up losing in November, if nominated, just because he has an "R" after his name.

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