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Republican Chafee faces fierce Democratic challenge in R.I.

WARWICK, R.I.  --Standing outside his childhood elementary school on the last day of a race that polls show is virtually even, Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island encouraged voters this morning to stick with the moderate Republican in a contest that could help determine whether Democrats regain the Senate.

‘‘All right, Lincoln, that was the vote that put you over the top,’’ Edward Foley, a 60-year-old former neighbor of Chafee’s, said as he left the red-brick Potowomut Elementary School after voting with his mother, Betty Foley, 88, both of Warwick. Chafee smiled and thanked him.

Edward Foley said he has known Chafee ‘‘since Moby Dick was a minnow’’ and added, ``I might not always agree with him, but he’s his own man.’’

That’s the message that Chafee, facing a fierce challenge by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, has been making assiduously in heavily Democratic Rhode Island.

Chafee, the 53-year-old son of the late Senator John Chafee, one of the last of the Rockefeller Republicans in Congress, was the lone Republican senator to vote against the war in Iraq, and he has bucked President Bush on numerous issues, including abortion rights, the environment, and the legalization of gay marriage.

Indeed, he said he increasingly feels so out of step with the GOP majority – he cited its support for a constitutional amendment to outlaw burning the American flag – that he finds it ``hard being a Republican.’’ Nonetheless, Republicans such as California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani have hewed to moderate positions, he said, and he hoped others would join them.

In another Warwick neighborhood several miles, Whitehouse told people entering a polling place at a public library that the decisive issue was electing a Democrat to wrest control of the Senate from Republicans.

‘‘It looks like George Bush is going to get a Republican Senate if we lose Rhode Island,’’ Whitehouse, 51, said as he greeted voters in the parking lot.

That argument echoed those made by former President Bill Clinton last night at a rally at the Community College of Rhode Island in Warwick, his second appearance for Whitehouse in the past month. A swing of six seats would give the Democrats control of the Senate, he noted, and winning Rhode Island was crucial.

Whitehouse, a former US attorney and Rhode Island attorney general, has said that even though he and Chafee have similar stances on many issues, the most important vote that Chafee would take is on which party leads the Senate.

That view resonated with some voters leaving the library, but not with Jack Corey, a building inspector for Warwick who worked under Chafee when the latter was mayor in the 1990s.

‘‘I’m going to vote for Chafee,’’ he said. Chafee opposed Bush on the war in Iraq, he said, and ``they said, `Look at this dope.’ But he was right.’’

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