ALBANY, N.Y. — In a Republican Party struggling to find its identity, the surprise withdrawal of the chosen GOP candidate for a New York congressional race – forced by a rising conservative upstart – renews a lingering national debate: Are moderates welcome in today's Grand Old Party?
The question became even more relevant Sunday when the ex-candidate, state Assemblywoman Dierdre Scozzafava, threw her support behind the Democrat in the race rather than the Conservative Party candidate favored by fellow Republicans.
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."
But in New York's rural 23rd Congressional District, the message was clear early: Scozzafava was too moderate; some even used the dreaded "L" word – liberal. Her endorsement of Democrat Bill Owens over Conservative Doug Hoffman only reinforced that perception – even her former campaign spokesman, Matt Burns, said it was a mistake and urged Republicans to back Hoffman.
During the campaign she 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 Democratic-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.
"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.
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.
Big-name Republicans including Sarah Palin, 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.
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."
Brabender said the outcome of Tuesday's race will be key as Democrats and Republicans fight for what will be perceived as message-sending wins in this and other off-year races. Democrats will try to scoop up any disenfranchised moderate Republicans, while Republicans will argue that this is the year the political pendulum swings back to the right.
"There's a renewed belief that the Republican Party has a number of principles and people are going to look at the candidates running and look at the consistency of their principles rather than if they have an 'R' after their name," Brabender said.
A Republican loss in the 23rdwould leave the party with just two seats in the 29-member state congressional delegation.