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Rhode Island's Chafee says Obama inspired party switch

By Aaron Pressman

WARWICK, Rhode Island (Reuters) - Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee credited U.S. President Barack Obama with inspiring him to join the Democratic Party, a stance that his peers said put the son of former governor more in line with voters in the state.

Chafee, who a decade ago served in the U.S. Senate as a Republican and later changed his affiliation to independent when he ran for governor, appeared at city hall in Warwick, where he lives, to fill out the one-page form to change his affiliation.

"You've done this a couple of times, I know you have," joked Dottie McCarthy, a voter registration technician who helped Chafee with his paperwork.

After signing, Chafee briefly discussed what prompted the shift.

"Having President Obama be the Democratic leader had a lot to do with it," said Chafee, who had endorsed Obama in his initial 2008 run for the White House and in his 2012 re-election campaign.

He said he looked forward to working with fellow Democratic governors to share ideas on phasing in the new state-run health insurance exchanges created by the healthcare reform law that stands as Obama's signature domestic legislative achievement.

Standing behind the desk he once occupied as a member of the city council, Chafee, said that the Republican party had changed since his early political career. The son of former Rhode Island Governor and Senator John Chafee, Lincoln Chafee was appointed to the Senate in 1999, after his father died.

Then a Republican, he ran a successful Senate campaign for reelection in 2000, but lost to a Democratic challenger in 2006. He changed his party affiliation to independent before his 2010 run for governor.

"As I saw the Republican agenda and lived it, it did not meet what I cared about," Chafee told reporters.

When Chafee ran for governor in 2010, Obama declined to endorse the Democratic candidate - then-State Treasurer Frank Caprio - in part due to his friendship with Chafee, who was an early endorser of Obama's 2008 run.

A February Brown University poll showed just one in four respondents approved of how Chafee was doing his job, making him less than half as popular as his possible rivals for the 2014 race, Providence Mayor Angel Taveras and State Treasurer Gina Raimondo.

Chafee declined to speculate about how changing parties might affect his re-election chances.

"You're going to have to do all your war gaming on that," he told reporters. "Elections will take care of themselves."

Rhode Island has struggled to recover from the last recession and has one of the highest unemployment rates in the United States.

"Since taking office in 2010, Governor Chafee has been a strong and outspoken supporter of many of the issues that I personally value and that make up the core values of the Democratic party," said Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts, a Democrat. "I applaud the governor's choice to join our party."

(Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Leslie Gevirtz)

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