ALBANY, N.Y. — Fighting plunging support, Republican Dierdre Scozzafava abruptly suspended her campaign Saturday in a special election for a U.S. House seat that has exposed a rift among national factions of the party.
Campaign spokesman Matt Burns said Scozzafava is essentially withdrawing from the race, although her name will remain on Tuesday's ballot. She thinks stepping aside is best for the party, he said.
"It is increasingly clear that pressure is mounting on many of my supporters to shift their support," Scozzafava said in a written statement. "Consequently, I hereby release those individuals who have endorsed and supported my campaign to transfer their support as they see fit."
The announcement comes after a Siena College poll found she was in third place with 20 percent of the vote in the heavily Republican upstate New York district that has been safe ground for the party for more than 100 years. Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman and Democratic nominee Bill Owens were too close to call with 35 percent and 36 percent, respectively.
The race has pitted conservative and moderate wings of the Republican Party in a battle of ideology both nationally and statewide. Hoffman and his backers say Scozzafava is too liberal to represent the GOP, specifically noting her support of abortion rights and same-sex marriage.
In the short run, the development consolidates Republican voters behind the conservative candidate and improves the party's chances of retaining the seat in the 23rd Congressional District, which encompasses all or parts of 11 counties in rural northern and central New York.
Longer term, Democrats will cast this as a troubling sign for the GOP because it exemplifies that divide in the party between moderates and conservatives, with those further to the right, including the "Tea Party" movement, now getting the upper hand.
Scozzafava came into the race with what should have been a big advantage. She was popular in her Assembly district. The 23rd has been rock-solid Republican for decades, one of only three held by the GOP in New York's 29-seat Congressional delegation.
But she got caught in the push and pull of a larger challenge as the GOP tries to define itself.
She failed to catch voters like James Keech, a 71-year-old registered Republican from Oswego. He said Scozzafava is too far to the left. Meanwhile, Hoffman has been able to seize on feelings of disenfranchisement among upstate voters who have grown in number during President Barack Obama's short time in office, partly because of proposals for federally funded health care.
"I want someone who stands for something, someone who will take a position, not: 'Me too, I'm just like the other guy,' " he said, in an interview before Scozzafava announced her decision.
Big-name Republicans including Sarah Palin and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson weighed in to throw their support behind Hoffman, and money poured into his campaign from all over the country.
"In today's political arena, you must be able to back up your message with money – and as I've been outspent on both sides, I've been unable to effectively address many of the charges that have been made about my record," Scozzafava said.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said Scozzafava's decision is a "selfless act" and that the committee is immediately endorsing Hoffman. That support will include financial backing and efforts to get voters to the polls.
Scozzafava also got a gentle nudge to step aside last week from congressional Republicans who had supported her candidacy. Texas Rep. Pete Sessions, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, tacitly acknowledged Thursday that Hoffman might be the stronger candidate for the party, saying the Conservative Party candidate would be "welcome in our conference."
The NRCC and RNC moved quickly Saturday to endorse Hoffman, but strategists said television ads run by NRCC in the district will continue criticizing Owens, not backing Hoffman.
Some have called the race a test of the GOP's future: whether traditional conservative ideology would lead the way forward or if a more inclusive approach would draw more people back to the party.
Hoffman already is thinking about how to bring the party back together, and said this race could be the start of "the resurgence of the Republican Party."
"I think her statement clearly implies that the important thing from this point on is that all of us Republicans combine forces to make sure that we get a congressman that will represent the values and the ideals of the 23rd District, and I believe I am that person," he told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"Everything in the last couple weeks has been overwhelming, but I think this has been the most overwhelming moment because I never expected it," he added.
Owens described Scozzafava as an honorable public servant, and said he's focusing on his own campaign, but blamed factions within the Republican Party for her early departure from the race.
"Obviously I think what has happened here, is the right wing extremists in the Republican Party have spent over a million dollars to drive her out of the race," Owens said Saturday night.
A Republican loss in the 23rd would leave the party with just two seats in the 29-member state congressional delegation.