WASHINGTON — Under fire from prominent members of her own party who said she wasn't conservative enough, the Republican candidate for an open U.S. House seat in New York abruptly withdrew from the race just days before the election, and in another surprise move over the weekend, endorsed her Democratic rival.
State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava said she was trailing in polls, unable to raise money and unlikely to win. She told supporters that while her name would still be on the ballot Tuesday, she released all of them from their pledges and said they could vote for anyone.
The sudden withdrawal came as polls showed her falling to third place behind Democrat Bill Owens and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman. The election in New York's upstate 23rd Congressional District will fill a seat vacated when moderate Republican John McHugh was named Secretary of the Army by President Barack Obama.
"In recent days, polls have indicated that my chances of winning this election are not as strong as we would like them to be," she said.
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"It is increasingly clear that pressure is mounting on many of my supporters to shift their support. Consequently, I hereby release those individuals who have endorsed and supported my campaign to transfer their support as they see fit to do so."
Scozzafava, who Sunday endorsed Owens, said she'd always been a "proud Republican" and hoped her withdrawal would help the party.
A moderate with close ties to organized labor, Scozzafava was selected as the party nominee by country chairmen who thought her the strongest candidate to carry the district that had elected the moderate McHugh and which swung to Obama in 2008.
While some party leaders such as Newt Gingrich called that the smartest way to win enough seats in coming years to win back control of Congress, others instead called it a cop-out.
Scozzafava was vilified as a liberal RINO -- Republican in Name Only -- as big name Republicans such as Sarah Palin, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Reagan Atty. Gen. Ed Meese urged voters to reject her and instead support Hoffman.
Hoffman, a Republican who launched his third party challenge after losing the nomination to Scozzafava, saw his support climb while hers dropped.
A new poll by the Siena Research Institute showed Owens with the support of 36 percent of likely voters, Hoffman with 35 percent and Scozzafava with 20 percent. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The Republican establishment immediately embraced Hoffman as their de facto candidate.
"Effective immediately, the RNC will endorse and support the conservative candidate in the race, Doug Hoffman," said Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele. "Doug's campaign will receive the financial backing of the RNC, and get-out-the-vote efforts to defeat Bill Owens on Tuesday."
Owens will get help as well, as Vice President Joe Biden heads to the district Monday to rally supporters.
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