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Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman is forcing Republican Dede Scozzafava into a two-front race.
Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman is forcing Republican Dede Scozzafava into a two-front race.

Feud among national conservatives could hurt Scozzafava candidacy

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In just four weeks, voters will go to the polls to replace former North Country Congressman John McHugh, who was appointed Secretary of the Army. The candidates are out on the campaign trail talking about jobs and taxes and healthcare. But one of the biggest factors shaping the race for New York's 23d district is a bitter ideological feud within the national conservative movement. Many activist groups in Washington DC think Republican Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava is too liberal. They're backing Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. As Brian Mann reports, the fierce infighting on the right could throw the election to Democrat Bill Owens.

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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Special Report by Brian Mann

When long-time Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava voted to support same-sex marriage, she knew she was pushing the outer limits of the Republican Party's big tent.

"There have definitely been political consequences," she told NCPR last March.

"My own party has cringed at some aspects and thought that perhaps I wasn't politically viable once I voted for this issue."

But this summer, GOP officials in the North Country and in Washington embraced Scozzafava.  They tapped her as the woman who should replace Congressman John McHugh. 

Scozzafava seemed like a smart pick for a Republican Party hungry for a rare win in the Northeast. 

Half a year earlier, Barack Obama had won a majority of votes in the 23rd district, suggesting that a moderate might be the best candidate. 

And the GOP was still stinging from a special election defeat in the spring in the neighboring 20th district.

Republican Jim Tedisco campaigned hard against the Democratic stimulus plan.

But he lost to Democrat Scott Murphy - a devastating defeat that resonated in Albany and Washington DC. 

This time, says Doug Wasserman, who writes for the Cook Political Report, the GOP decided to take its shot with someone far more independent - and arguably - far more liberal. 

"This race at the outset was billed as a chance for Republicans to show just how much they want to win," Wasserman said, "regardless of whether they have to sacrifice some ground on issues. 

Scozzafava makes no bones about her willingness to break with GOP leaders.  Here she is last week on the campaign trail in Saranac Lake.  

"If you ask me how I would have voted on the Federal stimulus plan if I had been in Washington, I'll be honest with you.  I would have voted for the stimulus package," she said last week at a campaign event in Saranac Lake

Scozzafava is also pro-choice and supports the Employee Free Choice Act Favored by unions. 

What no one could foresee was that Scozzafava's candidacy would serve as a kind of flashpoint within the national conservative movement.

She's been targeted by Doug Hoffman, an accountant from Lake Placid and a newcomer to politics who tried to win Republican backing for this election.  

When he was rejected, Hoffman first offered to support Scozzafava.  But in a stunning reversal he announced that he would run against her on the Conservative Party line.

"Forget the Republican Party bosses," Hoffman said.  "I believe that the voters in the Republican Party are looking for a candidate like me."

In the weeks since, a nasty and fratricidal battle has emerged, with Republicans firing broadsides at conservatives - and an alphabet soup of conservative activist groups blasting Dede Scozzafava as a liberal turncoat.

A Washington-based group called Club for Growth is running an ad that ties Scozzafava to Albany's dysfunctional politics.

"This is the kind of two-front war that Republicans have dreaded for some time," says the Cook Report's Wasserman, who wrote last week that in-fighting on the right has seriously damaged Scozzafava's campaign.

According to Wasserman, "the party at war with itself still seems to be the Republicans and it's very harmful to Republican chances of holding onto this seat."

Indeed, Republicans insist that Doug Hoffman is nothing more than a spoiler - someone who could well toss the election to Democrat Bill Owens.

That argument that drew strength last week when a poll by the Siena Research Institute showed the Conservative candidate trailing Scozzafava by nearly twenty points.

"It is very hard to see a road map that would allow [Hoffman] to win this race," said Siena's Steven Greenberg.  "But there is no question that he is a factor in this race."

But Conservative activist groups say they're convinced that Hoffman can win. 

"In fact we think his odds of winning are as high or higher than any other candidate in this race," said David Keating, executive director of Club for Growth.

Keating cites his own poll, conducted last month, which showed a much tighter race.

But he acknowledges that defeating Scozzafava is also an important goal for groups like his that are trying to shape a more right-of-center GOP.  

"It sends a message to the Republican Party, which is that we're sick and tired of your big-spending habits.  And Dede Scozzafava is that kind of big-spending Republican that many people are sick of," eh argued. 

In the weeks that remain, this national feud over the shape and tone of the Republican Party could shape the tone of this North Country election.

Club for Growth says it will spend a quarter million dollars backing Hoffman. 

Doug Wasserman, with the Cook Political Report, says that means Scozzafava will be pummeled from the right and the left.

"It's hard to see what she can do," he said.  "She's going to be outgunned here by two opponents and that's a very tough situation for any nominee to be in."

Scozzafava clearly hopes that her local ties and her personal connections across the North Country, won't be drowned out by this ideological tug of war. 

"I've taken six, eight weeks of criticism on a lot of things," she said during her visit to Saranac Lake.  "I'm not waffling.  And guess what?  The best revenge is to win in the end."

Early polls show Scozzafava is winning a lot of support from independents and even from voters who usually pull the lever for Democrats. 

 But with fewer than fifty percent of Republicans now backing her, Scozzafava is likely to face another bruising month to election day.

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