In an exclusive appearance on "This Week with George Stephanopoulos," Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., predicted he will withstand an intraparty primary challenge from Republican Mayor Steve Laffey in one of the key races to his party's chances of holding onto control of the Senate.
"This is going to be a close race," Chafee told Stephanopoulos, who traveled to Rhode Island as a part of "This Week's" on-the-trail series of interviews leading up to the 2006 midterm elections and 2008 presidential race.
Chafee's father, the late Sen. John Chafee, R-R.I., served four terms in the Senate before announcing his retirement in 1999. Chafee's son announced his intention to run for the seat but was appointed to the post after his father's sudden death of congestive heart failure later that same year.
The junior Chafee, a former Republican mayor, was elected in his own right in 2000 and would face his first Senate re-election in November -- if he wins the Republican primary.
Steve Laffey, the one-term mayor of Cranston, R.I., and a successful investment banker, has run a tough campaign against Chafee despite strong support for the sitting senator among national Republican Party leaders.
Also appearing exclusively on "This Week", Laffey told ABC News, "The last thing that Karl Rove and his buddies want down in Washington is a real reformer like me, someone who shakes things up, who has the ideas and the ability to implement real solutions."
The latest independent poll done by Rhode Island College surveyed a small sample size of only 363 registered voters, and showed Laffey defeating Chafee in the Sept. 12 primary by a 51-to-34-percent margin, a 17 percentage point gap. Their previous poll, conducted in June, found the race nearly even, suggesting some movement in Laffey's direction.
Troubling to Republicans nationally, however, is that polls consistently show Chafee fares far better than Laffey in the general election against the leading Democratic candidate, Sheldon Whitehouse.
Dan Ronayne, a spokesman for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told ABC News' Teddy Davis point blank, "If Laffey wins the primary, we lose the seat. All polling has reflected that. It's just the reality."
And, as opposed to incumbent Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., who is pursuing his seat as an independent after losing his bid for reelection in Connecticut's Democratic primary to newcomer Ned Lamont, Chafee has ruled out an independent run.
"That's off the board," Chafee said. "Technically, in Rhode Island, I cannot do it. But even if I could, I wouldn't."
So Sept. 12 could be the final word on Chafee.
Chafee has broken with his party on numerous issues, including the president's tax cuts, prescription drugs, the Iraq war, stem cells and gay marriage, and labels himself a "traditional Republican." He acknowledges, however, that "it's much more conservative" in Congress these days.
Still, he believes, "I'm fighting from within, speaking up in or caucuses, making my voice heard. I think I've been vindicated on a number of votes. The Iraq war is, I think most people would say, a mistake, especially in the premise that there were weapons of mass destruction. There weren't."
In the 2004 presidential election, Chafee even voted against President George W. Bush, instead writing in the name of Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush.
"I've voted Republican my whole life," Chafee told ABC News.
"Yet, you voted against President Bush," Stephanopoulos replied. "You voted his dad."
"Yes, I voted Republican," Chafee said. "His dad reflects the party that I think I'm part of -- good environmental record, some fear of foreign entanglement. When he went to Kuwait, it was an international effort. That's more my Republican."
For those reasons and more, Chafee finds himself in a precarious political fight. Potentially, he may be more able to win the general election as a maverick Republican in the decidedly Democratic-leaning state of Rhode Island. But that same independent streak may cost him the Republican nomination. Chafee, however, does not plan to fade without a fight.
The senator accuses Laffy of "hypocrisy" on issues such as taxes and stem cell research. The Cranston mayor has pledged he will never vote for a federal tax increase if elected to Congress and -- though he once invested in a company involved in stem cell research -- frequently states his opposition to the procedure on the campaign trail.
"It's unfortunate that the … sitting United States senator, is left to calling other people names," Laffey countered.
On taxes, Laffey insisted that his tax hike as mayor will have no effect on future votes in the Senate.
Laffey said of Chafee, "We have a philosophical difference. He would like to raise everybody's taxes. In effect, he is so out of the mainstream, he is one of only three U.S. senators -- not three Republican senators, three U.S. senators -- who wanted to raise taxes on the middle class back in 2004, raising the taxes of a family of four, making $35,000, by $1,800. That's wrong."
Regarding the issue of stem cells, Laffy insisted his position is an "economic decision", explaining, "At the federal level, I've studied the subject, and after a $100 million in 10 years of federal money, there are no cures and no human clinical trials, while there are thousands going on with adult stem cells. … I want to put money where it works."
In a final debate before the Sept. 12th primary, Laffey pounced on Chafee's rejection of the death penalty for Osama bin Laden.
In his exclusive appearance on ABC News, Chafee explained, "You can't be a little bit pregnant. Same with the death penalty. Either you're for it or against it. And I've been opposed to it because in Rhode Island we executed an innocent man -- highly emotional, quick execution."
Chafee resisted concluding that he would forever oppose the death penalty, but again stated, "As long as I'm going to be opposed to the death penalty, you can't make exceptions for individuals. And once you do make an exception, then you're for the death penalty."
Laffey finds himself opposed by the national Republican Party, and more likely to win the primary than a general election. Of Republican leaders such as Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., who is charged with leading the Republican effort to retain the party's Senate majority, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Karl Rove, the president's primary political consultant, Laffey said, "They're all against me."
Nevertheless, Laffey continued, "The elitist attitude that a kid like me, who comes from the wrong side of the tracks and had the hardscrabble way of growing up, shouldn't run for office is foreign to me. … I will win the whole thing."
Chafee remains undaunted, edging ever closer a primary that could prove the second to oust an incumbent this election season. Still pledging to remain a Republican and support their majority if elected, but refusing to guarantee a party-line vote, Chafee said, "I haven't ever promised anybody anything other than I'm going to vote my conscience and keep good relations with everybody -- liberals, Democrats, conservatives, Republicans. Keep good relations, I work hard at it. I listen to every point of view and I think, in the end, that has paid off for Rhode Island."
George Stephanopoulos' entire interviews with Chafee and Laffey can be viewed Sunday at "This Week's" Web page at www.abcnews.com.