updated 10/18/2009 5:15:24 PM ET 2009-10-18T21:15:24

President Barack Obama and former President Bill Clinton are lending their political star power to an unlikely Democratic bid to win a special congressional election in an area that's been a Republican bastion for more than a century.

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The Nov. 3 contest in upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District, a sprawling, 11-county area where registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by 45,000, is shaping up as a test of a struggling GOP and a possible gauge of Obama's coattails.

Obama, who carried the district by 5 percentage points in his landslide victory in New York last year, forced the special election when he named the incumbent, Republican John McHugh, his Army secretary. The president will host a fundraiser for the Democratic candidate, Bill Owens, on Tuesday in New York City.

In a fundraising e-mail for Owens, Clinton called the special election "bigger than just one candidate or one office ... victory or defeat will also be seen as a referendum on President Obama's agenda."

A referendum on Obama?
Owens, 60, a Plattsburgh lawyer and retired Air Force captain, is one of three candidates competing for the seat. The others are Republican Dierdre Scozzafava, 49, a state Assemblywoman, and Conservative candidate Doug Hoffman, 59, a businessman.

Hoffman's spokesman, Rob Ryan, said the race will be a referendum on Obama's first 10 months and on the future of the Republican Party.

Democrats see an opening in the traditionally Republican district because Scozzafava and Hoffman are splitting the conservative vote. An Oct. 15 survey by Siena College showed Owens with 33 percent, Scozzafava with 29 percent and Hoffman with 23 percent. The poll of 617 likely voters had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9 percentage points.

Conservative groups such as The Club for Growth have endorsed Hoffman. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsed Scozzafava last week, in a move apparently aimed as shoring up the Republican's support among conservatives.

Republicans have complained that Obama picked McHugh for the Army job because he viewed the 23rd as vulnerable. Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand won the nearby 20th district, another longtime GOP stronghold, in 2006, and Democrat Scott Murphy won a close special election in March to hold the seat after Gillibrand was appointed to the U.S. Senate.

Whatever Obama's motivations, McHugh, who represented the 23rd District since 1993, has the credentials for the Army job. He served on the House Armed Services Committee for years and worked with the oft-deployed 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, which is in the district.

The compressed time frame of a special election — McHugh was confirmed only last month — leaves voters with little-known candidates and little time for introductions.

Potential crossover appeal
In the state Assembly, Scozzafava, of Gouverneur, has broken with the Republican conference only 5 percent of the time, but on high-profile issues such as same-sex marriage, greenhouse gas emissions, sex education in schools and gender identity discrimination. In the past she's won the Working Families Line — a liberal minority party closely associated with the Democratic Party. It endorsed Owens this time.

Scozzafava's potential crossover appeal has the National Republican Congressional Committee hopeful it can hold onto the seat, one of only three that the Republicans controlled in the state's 29-member congressional delegation.

Owens, is the managing partner at the law firm Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, & Trombley, and has practiced law for 30 years. Hoffman, of North Elba, is the managing partner in an accounting firm and oversees a family business that includes investment, real estate and construction.

State GOP Chairman Edward Cox said the 23rd is a swing district with varied demographics, including organized labor, hunting enthusiasts and farmers. He said the combined vote of Conservatives and Republicans will be heard as a rejection of Obama's agenda — no matter the winner.

"The national relevance is that the vote against Obama is going to be overwhelming," Cox said.

June O'Neill, executive committee chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said the seat is symbolically important for Republicans nationally.

"Let's face it," she said, "this seat should be a safe Republican seat and — as recent events and the most recent poll has shown — it is no longer a safe Republican seat."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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