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Conservative Doug Hoffman holds momentum going into Tuesday's vote
Conservative Doug Hoffman holds momentum going into Tuesday's vote

GOP's Scozzafava campaigns for Dem Owens; Conservative Hoffman holds momentum

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Over the weekend, shockwaves ran through the North Country's political culture. First Republican Dede Scozzafava dropped out of the special election to replace Congressman John McHugh. Then, on Sunday, Scozzafava announced that she is endorsing Democrat Bill Owens. The Republican and the Democrat appeared together at campaign event yesterday at the VFW hall in Canton. Owens, an attorney from Plattsburgh, remains locked in a tight race with third-party Conservative Doug Hoffman, an accountant from Lake Placid. Brian Mann followed developments as they unfolded and has our story.

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But Democrat Bill Owens has been endorsed by Republican Dede Scozzafava

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Brian Mann
Adirondack Bureau Chief

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On Saturday morning, the Siena Research Institute released its final poll of the 23rd district House race.  The numbers were devastating for Dede Scozzafava, the veteran Republican assemblywoman from Gouverneur. 

After holding the lead only weeks before, Scozzafava had dropped into a distant third place. 

Looking exhausted and distraught, she announced that she was withdrawing from the campaign.  "It was time, I think, to do the right thing and release the Republican county chairs, who've supported me this entire time," she said.

Scozzafava's collapse followed a massive assault from conservative groups and national media.  She's pro-choice, supports same-sex marriage, and has close ties to labor. 

Conservative leaders like Fox News Host Glenn Beck portrayed her relentlessly as a kind of wolf in sheep's clothing.

"All you have to do is just say, 'She is endorsed by ACORN,'" Beck said on his syndicated radio show.

In fact, Scozzafava congressional bid was never endorsed by Acorn, a liberal social-service agency that has drawn fire from conservatives.  But without the campaign money to fight back, negative opinions of her soared.

In recent weeks, even many establishment Republicans abandoned Scozzafava's camp.  Former New York Governor George Pataki is himself widely views as a moderate, with strong ties to the GOP leaders who picked Scozzzafava.

But he appeared at a Conservative Party event last week in New York City - endorsing Doug Hoffman.

"There's one way we can stop Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid from having another vote on Tuesday," Pataki said, " and that's to elect Doug Hoffman."

Scozzafava's decision to pull out threw an already turbulent three-way election into complete chaos. 

Steven Greenberg, a pollster with Siena, says the race was a dead heat going into the weekend between Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Doug Hoffman. 

"While common wisdom would say that most of the Scozzafava voters will go to Hoffman, this race has been anything but common," Greenberg said.

As early as Sunday morning, there were rumblings that Scozzafava's role in the race might not be over.  The Watertown Daily Times ran an editorial suggesting that Scozzafava was quietly urging supporters to back the Democrat. 

According to published reports, Democratic leaders - including former state party chair June O'Neill and Attorney General Andrew Cuomo - lobbied Scozzafava, urging her to back Owens. 

Mid-afternoon, Scozzafava issued a public statement confirming that she sees Owens as the best man for moderate Republicans to support. 

In an interview with North Country Public Radio, Bill Owens responded to the news Sunday evening. 

"We're proud that the Assemblywoman has decided to endorse me," he said.  "She is someone who's worked very hard in a bipartisan way for the people of her district."

Conservatives and many Republicans reacted with outrage.  Roby Ryan is spokesman for the Hoffman campaign.

"This afternoon, Dede Scozzafava betrayed the GOP," he said.

Scozzafava's shocking move indicates just how grieved she was by the conservative onslaught that knocked her out of the race.  Speaking with North Country Public Radio on Friday, Scozzafava described the Hoffman campaign as divisive and dishonest.

"Some of the ads that they're currently airing are very insensitive to people and families," she said.  "I just feel that type of divisiveness and hateful leadership is never going to build a stronger party."

All the turmoil within the GOP and the conservative movement represents a quandary for local activists. 

Jim Ellis, Republican chair in Franklin County is one of the leaders who chose Scozzafava, but he endorsed Hoffman on Sunday.

"I think I'm very, very comfortable with anyone who's able to understand fiscal matters," he said.  "That's where the danger is today, the kind of reckless spending that's going on in our national government."

Still, Ellis acknowledges that many of Scozzafava's Republican supporters might share her anger at the conservative attacks.

"I think in the North Country people vote for people.  They don't vote for some kind of political philosophy, they vote for people.  And to the degree that Dede might have gotten sympathy, yeah, there might be some anger over that for her."

This is the mess that rank-and-file Republicans will have to sort out.  Barbara Wells in Saranac Lake says she's never voted for a Democratic president. 

But she's not sure how to cast her ballot on Tuesday.

"It will be a difficult decision.  I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet," she said.

Wells says she loves Hoffman's small-government, tax-cutting message. But like many moderate Republicans in the 23rd district - especially women - she's uncomfortable with his conservative social views. 

"As far as gay marriage, I don't see anything wrong with that," she said.  "And the same thing with abortion.  I think it's a woman's body and she has the right to make the choice."

While locals sort through the rubble of this bizarre election, the drama in the North Country also rocked the political culture in Washington DC.

Speaking with CNN's John King on Sunday, House minority leader John Boehner acknowledged that Scozzafava's downfall was a complicated development for his party.

"I'm a big believer in Ronald Reagan's eleventh commandment:  Never talk ill of another Republican," Boehner said.

"That wasn't followed in this race," King pointed out, to which Boehner answered, "I know."

Democrats, meanwhile, seemed to revel in the Republican mayhem. 

Speaking on Meet the Press Sunday, White House advisor David Axelrod questioned whether politicians like Scozzafava could still operate within the GOP.

"I think it sends a very clear message to moderates within that party that there's no room at the inn for them," Axelrod said.

This campaign was already at a fever pitch before the weekend's twists and turns.

Conservative Doug Hoffman seemed to be surging, with activists from around the country pushing hard for a come-from-behind victory. 

But with labor groups pushing his get-out-the-vote effort Democrat Bill Owens could still manage an upset. 

Both campaigns have high profile visits today - with vice president Joe Biden stumping for Owens and conservative activist and actor Fred Thompson appearing with Hoffman. 

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