The Democratic Governors Association, trying to put the tax in the worst possible light, says on its website that Chafee's "shocking tax plan" would impose levies on "blind business owners, veterans, amputees (and amputee veterans)," noting the 1 percent tax would fall on equipment that the disabled need to drive cars.
Chafee's chances are boosted by his familiar name and a door-to-door brand of retail politics in what is officially known as the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In the nation's smallest state, with a population of just more than 1 million people, a candidate can drive from Westerly at the southern end to Woonsocket at the northern in an hour or so.
Arriving for lunch at Iggy's Doughboys & Chowder House here, Chafee joins the outdoor line of those waiting to order. Iggy's owner David Gravino, 37, greets him with an enthusiastic handshake and back slap.
"He was a great mayor," Gravino says. As mayor of Warwick from 1993 to 1999, Chafee helped revitalize the surrounding hurricane-damaged area overlooking Narragansett Bay and attended the 1998 opening of the clam shack's indoor dining room.
As Chafee carries bags of the eatery's signature doughboys — a cardiologist's nightmare of deep fat-fried dough and crab — Antonio Ferreira, 67, comes over to get his photo snapped and a trio at the next table give him a friendly wave.
"I remember when he went to Cedar Hill Elementary School," said Hilda Poppe, 83, a retired librarian from Warwick whose younger daughter was in Chafee's class. She and her husband, Norman, 84, are having lunch on the outdoor deck with their older daughter, Nonnie O'Brien, 59.
"I always vote Democratic except for him," O'Brien says.
"He has a Republican name but he's always been independent," her father says approvingly.
What about his idea of raising the sales tax?
Norman Poppe hadn't heard about the proposal. "I don't like that," he says, frowning.
"But if it pays the debt," his wife chimes in. With the state's finances in trouble — there's a projected budget shortfall for next year of $405 million — she says any remedy will be painful.
"The others are saying they won't do it," her husband concedes, "but they might when they get in anyway."
Chafee acknowledges that suggesting the tax hike is a calculated risk. He's counting on voters to reward a straightforward discussion of the options ahead. If they don't, he says, the fault will be his own failure to communicate and convince them.
He cites former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas as a model. Tsongas' warnings about the dangers of the federal deficit and his ridicule of candidates' pandering helped him win the New Hampshire Democratic primary in 1992, though he lost the presidential nomination to Bill Clinton.
"I'm well aware of the dangers of honesty," Chafee said. His father, John, was defeated in his bid for a fourth term as governor in 1968 after he argued a state income tax was imperative. His successor, who had hammered him about it during the campaign, was forced to adopt one two years after taking office.
"It was devastating; he loved being governor," Chafee, who was 15 at the time, said of his late father, who also served in the Senate and died in 1999. "But I never heard him say 'I could have done it differently.'"
Chafee, 57, is a happier, more confident candidate than he was during his last race four years ago.