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Richard Nixon's Short Coattails

Chafee Bombs in R.I.

By Henry W. Mcgee iii

"POLITICAL CAMPAIGNS are similar to military campaigns," John H. Chafee, Nixon's former secretary of the Navy and the man who oversaw the mining of Haiphong harbor, told his campaign field commanders. Mapping out the Nixon battle plan for capturing five additional Senate seats, including one from Rhode Island, Chafee told his troops, "I can win only if we go out there and fight."

The Nixon machine was clearly out for a fight as it unleashed its political clout on tiny Rhode Island with all the ferocity of a saturation bombing Secretaries Morton, Rogers and Richardson all blitzed the state stumping for their old pal Chafee. Finally, the weekend before the election, Weapon X was unveiled as Richard Nixon himself came in to campaign for Chafee.

But the Democrats were just as adamant in their desire to return liberal Claiborne Pell to a third term in the Senate as the Vietnamese are to preserve their national integrity Edmund Muskie and Edward Kennedy came in to join the fight for the Democrats and Jackie Onassis promised to campaign but had to cancel at the last minute.

The race had all the tragedy of a civil war as it pitched two Rhode Island bluebloods with exemplary public service records in a fight for their political lives. Chafee, a youthful looking 51, full of vigor and drive, was a popular three-term former governor of Rhode Island, who lost the gubernatorial race in 1968 when he advocated a state income tax that his opponent later instituted. If he won this Senate race it would show that he was still a viable political candidate; if he lost he was politically dead. Pell, at 53 an old-line Democrat, fully realized that the Democrats would not capture the White House, and if he lost his Senate seat he'd have nowhere to go.

From the beginning, the race was hard-fought with heavy overtones of bitterness. Chafee relentlessly attacked Pell on his liberal stand on busing, and tried to tie the Senator to McGovern's military reduction proposals that would have devastated Navy-centered Rhode Island. In the early part of the campaign, Chafee's strategy paid off and by September he found himself ten points ahead of Pell in the polls.

Pell, an effective campaigner, managed gradually to neutralize Chafee's attacks by modifying his busing stand and denouncing McGovern's proposed defense cutbacks. Jumping quickly to the counter-offensive, Pell unsuccessfully attempted to get Rhode Island voters to link Chafee to Nixon's war policy. In his last campaign speeches. Pell also tried to make an issue of campaign disclosures, but the voters showed little interest.

BOTH MEN were in fundamental agreement on welfare and tax reform, and as the campaign entered its final week about the only salient issue left was who would be the most effective Senator. Pell pointed to his glowing record on the Senate Education Committee, and both Muskie and Kennedy testified to his worth. Chafee maintained that as both a former state representative and governor he intimately knew the problems of the state, and thus would be tremendously effective in the Senate. The Republican-leaning Providence Journal-Bulletin, Rhode Island's largest paper, endorsed Chafee based on this issue. But the issue of effectiveness wasn't enough for Chafee, and as the subjects of busing and defense cut-backs faded to did Chafee's strength, and the last pre-election poll showed him trailing Pell by two percentage points.

Chafee spent his last campaign like a young political warrior who knows he has to come from behind. On a helicopter tour of the state he took with him Republican state Attorney General Richard Israel who announced a "Vote Fraud Strike Force" that would diligently watch for any voting irregularities Chafee believed that the race would be extremely close and accordingly mapped out his tactics as though every vote represented the crucial margin of victory.

The campaign, he felt, would hinge on the 15,650 absentee and shut-in voters. Early in the campaign he set in motion a plan that included his older workers going from door to door in order to capture most of the shut-in vote. Chafee based his tactics on his own political history. In the 1962 gubernatorial race he had gone to bed behind, only to find out later that the absentee ballots had made him the winner by 398 votes.

Following Nixon's cue. Chafee also organized a small Democrats for Chafee Committee that he hoped would make at least some inroads into the Democratic strength. His regular organization pledged itself to get out every possible Republican vote and Chafee hoped that with a strong grasp on Nixon's coattails he would be pulled to victory.

In the last days of the campaign, Pell appeared tired, and worried that the younger and more dynamic Chafee might unseat him. He was like the great political general who was watching his last battle. "I don't know if I'll win," he ruminated. "I hope I'll win. I'm just not as confident as my staff."

Pell was concerned that he would be pulled down to defeat on McGovern's coattails. To minimize that possibility, he told the audiences at his last campaign speeches, "We may not succeed on an overall national basis, but the state races are important. It is necessary to keep a Democratic Senate to override Nixon's vetoes."

THE FACTOR that turned the election, that both men were aware of but tried to ignore, was the composition of Rhode Island voters. The second-most urban state in the country. Rhode Island is predominantly blue-collar and predominantly Democratic--in 1968 it gave Humphrey his largest margin. In addition, the state has the strongest Democratic machine outside of Chicago with political boss Larry McGarry serving as State Democratic Chairman and Providence Democratic Chairman.

McGarry hated McGovern with a passion, and needed to re-elect Pell in order to maintain his strength. The day before the election he was already conceding the state to Nixon, but claiming a huge victory for Pell. "Nixon's going to take this state by 35,000 votes," Boss McGarry predicted. "I'm counting on Pell to bring everybody back to the ticket. He's going to win by 40,000 easy."

When the smoke from the fighting at the ballot boxes had cleared, a quietly jubilant Pell stopped in front of a throng of a thousand supporters and well-wishers to announce he had just received the concession of John Chafee. Pell had won by over 32,000 votes, more than enough to offset any absentee ballot surge from Chafee.

Announcing one of the few triumphs over the Nixon blits, he declared, "My victory means that this Senate sent belongs to the people of Rhode Island and not to the President of the United States."

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