WASHINGTON — The gulf between the moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party appeared to spread Sunday when the Republican former candidate in a contentious congressional race endorsed the Democrat.
New York State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava's decision was essentially a rebuke of conservative activists who had mounted a wildcat effort to ensure her defeat. She had ended her campaign a day earlier after it became clear she could not win Tuesday's special election.
It remained uncertain, however, whether her endorsement could tilt the race toward Democrat Bill Owens. Polls show him running neck and neck with third-party candidate Doug Hoffman, who is on the Conservative Party ticket. Even before Scozzafava's withdrawal, Hoffman had been endorsed by such Republican luminaries as Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and former presidential candidate Steve Forbes.
Hoffman's campaign Sunday labeled Scozzafava a traitor who had "betrayed the GOP." Even her former campaign manager, Matt Burns, called her decision a mistake and urged Republicans to back Hoffman, the Associated Press reported.
Conservatives are likely to view Scozzafava's embrace of Owens as confirmation that she was politically unacceptable. The longtime state assemblywoman supports abortion rights, gay marriage and legislation that would make it easier for unions to organize.
The special election became necessary when President Obama chose the longtime moderate congressman from New York's 23rd District, Republican John M. McHugh, as secretary of the Army. The district, which stretches across the Adirondack Mountains from Oswego to Lake Champlain, has sent Republicans to Congress since 1980 but has been a swing district in presidential races. Obama won it with 52% of the vote.
Scozzafava had been handpicked by local Republican Party leaders and backed by the national party. But a surge of conservative activists energized Hoffman's third-party candidacy. Money poured into his campaign, and her fundraising foundered.
When Scozzafava withdrew Saturday, she endorsed no one. "I hereby release those individuals who have endorsed and supported my campaign to transfer their support as they see fit to do so," she said in a statement.
The national GOP promptly switched its allegiance to Hoffman.
And the White House opened its arms. On Sunday, before Scozzafava's announcement, senior Obama advisor Valerie Jarrett said on ABC's "This Week" that the administration "would love to have her support."
Jarrett painted the GOP as drifting from the mainstream. "It's rather telling when the Republican Party forces out a moderate Republican, and it says, I think, a great deal about where the Republican Party leadership is right now," she said.
But Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday that Scozzafava is "not just a liberal Republican, she's more liberal than many of the Democrats."
Scozzafava's decision infuriated Republicans who had stuck with her, including former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
He told the AP that he was disappointed and "deeply upset."
"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 -- who had sought the Republican nomination, joining the Conservative ticket after his bid failed.
GOP leaders made it clear Sunday that Hoffman had their full support. In an effort to court the military vote in New York, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), the minority whip, pledged that if Hoffman wins, they'll work to land him on the House Armed Services Committee. The congressional district includes Ft. Drum, which is home to the Army's 10th Mountain Division.
In the meantime, Obama inserted himself Sunday into another close race, attending a pair of rallies in New Jersey on behalf of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Corzine faces Republican challenger Christopher Christie on Tuesday.
Speaking to a crowd in Newark nearly a year after he was elected, Obama advanced a theme he is likely to employ frequently during next year's congressional election: He will need help from other Democrats and patience from voters to further his agenda, and his supporters' expectations should be realistic.
"This is when governing comes in, and we've got to make tough choices. And progress isn't always as quick as we want it," Obama said.
"When I ran for election, I did not say this was going to come overnight. I didn't say this was going to be easy. I didn't say you were going to be able to just put your feet up and turn on the TV and kind of watch everything magically get better.
"Change," he said, "is hard."