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Something for Both Sides

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Anyone who can see some overarching message in last week's primary results must have reading glasses that are more powerful than mine. Perhaps most important, each of the two major parties got the Senate nominee who gives it the best chance to hold on in a key state.

National Republican officials got their wish in Rhode Island, where moderate Lincoln Chafee won renomination. National Democratic officials were rewarded in Maryland with the victory of their strongest general election candidate, Rep. Ben Cardin.

But House Republicans received yet another lump of coal in their stocking in Arizona's primary to replace retiring Rep. Jim Kolbe: the nomination of very conservative state Rep. Randy Graf in a district more comfortable with a moderate.

In Rhode Island, independents were allowed to vote in the GOP primary. And because so few GOP primaries have been competitive in recent decades, it was difficult to predict what kind of independent might opt to take sides in the fight between Chafee and Cranston Mayor Stephen Laffey.

Pre-primary polling indicated that Laffey trailed the Democratic nominee, former state Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse, by about 30 points. In contrast, a Chafee-Whitehouse fight is considered pretty much a toss-up.

The general election in Rhode Island will be fought now by two candidates who are ideologically similar. New England is turning against Republicans, but Chafee's hard-fought primary win has earned him some respect as a street fighter. And some Democrats fret that Whitehouse might not prove to be a strong closer.

While the National Republican Senatorial Committee and its chairwoman, Sen. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, have had plenty of critics in this election cycle, they had the backbone to bet heavily on Chafee -- and flat-out announce that if Laffey won the primary, they would give up on Rhode Island.

In Maryland, Democrats were blessed: Cardin is favored to defeat Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele in the race to succeed Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes, who is retiring. Cardin's chief rival for the nomination, former Rep. Kweisi Mfume, is far more charismatic but would have had a much tougher time competing for white votes, given the ethical clouds over his tenure as president of the NAACP. GOP ads would have chewed him up.

Cardin, who is known as a quiet and highly effective legislator, has run an incredibly pedestrian campaign. His ads are even more boring than he is. Against a better-funded primary opponent or in a less Democratic state, Cardin would have been a distinct underdog. But in the general election, given this year's anti-GOP national climate and Maryland's Democratic nature, Cardin should win. However, his campaign's lethargy, and the Steele campaign's feistiness, could make the race quite competitive.

In Arizona, unlike Rhode Island, the national GOP's money failed to propel the party's preferred candidate, state Rep. Steve Huffman, to victory. Graf, who took 43 percent of the vote in the 2004 primary against Kolbe, won this year's five-way primary with 43 percent.

Although Graf is best known for his intense opposition to illegal immigration, he has taken many positions that Democrats are sure to exploit. Huffman's ads provided a preview of Democratic attacks. One called Graf an "extremely dangerous candidate" who voted against the prescription drug benefit and "talked of ending Medicare."

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side, state Rep. Gabby Giffords easily won a six-way primary. She has a boatload of money and has already been on TV for seven weeks with positive ads. She enters the general election as the front-runner.

Will the GOP continue to invest in this contest? Not only is Graf widely viewed as too controversial and conservative for this suburban Tucson district, but he has also been a weak fundraiser. At the end of August, Graf had just $82,000 in the bank. Giffords had $334,000.

In a different year, the National Republican Congressional Committee might aggressively fight to hold this seat. That committee is used to having a lot more money than the Democrats and not all that many places to spend it. But, of course, that's not the case now.

 
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