Image: Bill Owens, Dan Hoffman, Dede Scozzafava
AP file
Democrat Bill Owens, left, now faces Conservative Party Dan Hoffman, middle, after Republican Dierdre Scozzafava, right, abruptly left the race.
updated 11/2/2009 3:12:58 PM ET 2009-11-02T20:12:58

Vice President Joe Biden is helping out a Democratic congressional candidate in the final hours of an upstate New York campaign that has become a referendum on the Republican Party.

Biden spoke at a rally Monday to support Bill Owens, who is facing third-party Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman in the special House election Tuesday. Biden said at a hall in Watertown that Hoffman wants to continue the failed policies of the Bush-Cheney administration.

Hoffman spokesman Rob Ryan says the candidate is talking about mainstream issues like high taxes and big spending. Ryan says Biden and Owens push extremist views.

Over the weekend, state assemblywoman Diedre Scozzafava withdrew as the official GOP candidate -- and then threw her support behind Owens rather than Hoffman, who is favored by many fellow Republicans.

Her cross-party endorsement put the spotlight on an apparent schism between the Republican Party and its conservative base.

The GOP leadership insisted on Sunday political TV talk shows the party is strong and inclusive while Democrats described a Republican party out of touch with the people.

"We accept moderates in our party, and we want moderates in our party. We cover a wide range of Americans," said Republican House Leader John Boehner in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union."

However, the party was divided between Scozzafava, who supports abortion rights and gay marriage, and Hoffman, who was favored by conservatives in the Republican Party, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

‘Party could explode and split itself up’
During the campaign Scozzafava failed to connect with voters, party officials or, perhaps most important, campaign donors, largely because of her support for abortion rights, same-sex marriage and union rights.

That opened the door for Hoffman, who took every opportunity to remind people that Scozzafava was not the kind of Republican they wanted representing their interests in a Democrat-led Congress.

Even before Scozzafava's fall, Republicans looking to broaden the base by attracting more centrist candidates worried that the harsh tone in the 23rd spelled trouble for the future, particularly the 2010 midterm elections. Video: GOP split

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"If we don't get some adult supervision, basically the party could explode and split itself up," said former Virginia Rep. Tom Davis, chief executive of the Republican Main Street Partnership, just days before Scozzafava withdrew.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had the same concern, and that's why he endorsed Scozzafava early in the race. As other Republicans threw their support behind Hoffman's momentum, Gingrich argued that the party needed to be more inclusive of moderates if it had a hope of retaking the majority.

He told The Associated Press he was disappointed, and "deeply upset" that Scozzafava endorsed Owens.

"How could she have accepted all that support?" he said, adding later: "I'm very, very let down because she told everybody she was a Republican, and she said she was a loyal Republican."

Gingrich now backs Hoffman.

Democrats reach out to Scozzafava
Scozzafava's support of Owens is angering Republicans back home as well. State Republican chairman Ed Cox said her endorsement is a "betrayal" of the people in the district and the party.

A recent Siena College poll showed her finishing a distant third behind Owens and Hoffman. And in this upstate New York district, Republicans never finish third. In its different configurations over the years, a Republican has represented this part of New York since 1852.

Scozzafava did not return calls Sunday. Her husband, local labor leader Ron McDougall, said he's supporting Owens because of his union positions. He said his wife had been treated "harshly."

During the weekend, New York Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer and the White House reached out to Scozzafava urging her to back Owens.

In addition to Palin, other big-name Republicans including Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson weighed in early in the race, giving their support to Hoffman. Money poured into his campaign from all over the country. In the process, Scozzafava was left behind in fundraising.

‘No room at the inn for’ moderates
Democrats are seizing on the race as evidence that Republicans won't be able to retake the majority with a far right agenda.

On CBS' Face The Nation, White House senior adviser David Axelrod addressed whether he believes conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh truly represents the direction the GOP is going.

"That's for the Republican Party to decide," Axelrod said. "I think we've seen an interesting development over this weekend in a special election in upstate New York in a congressional district. The Republican candidate withdrew because of the strong third-party movement behind a very right wing conservative. And certainly Mr. Limbaugh and others were behind that. And I think it sends a clear message to moderates within that party that there's no room at the inn for them. That's why you see Republican identification in polls at a historic low."

And Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Barack Obama, said Republican leadership is "becoming more and more extreme and more and more marginalized."

John Brabender, a veteran Republican consultant, said it's dangerous to lump people together by label and suggest there's no room for moderates.

"I think it's about how moderate, and how likely are they to be voting with Republicans," he said. "I think it would be too grand of a statement to say moderates have a target on their back."

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

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