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Obama campaigns for conservative Democrat

October 20, 2009 | 10:06 am

President Obama is finding a new version of bipartisanship, taking time out of his busy schedule to speak at a fundraiser for a New York congressional candidate who makes no secret of his more conservative leanings.

Obama’s appearance tonight is on behalf of Democratic candidate Bill Owens, who polls show is running slightly ahead of a more liberal Republican and an even more conservative opponent. All three are sparring in a special election for the congressional seat vacated when Obama named moderate Republican John M. McHugh to be secretary of the Army.

The congressional race has become of microcosm of the political confusions that are rumbling through the major political parties this year. Democrats are split between liberal and conservative wings that are finding it hard to fashion common ground on key issues such as healthcare reform. While Republicans, wanting to keep the energy of conservatives’ unhappiness, are having a hard time finding a place for the moderates they need for electoral success.

The 23rd Congressional District is deep in upstate New York near the Canadian border and includes Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. It has sent only Republicans to Congress since around the Civil War. Tonight, Obama is expected to speak well of Owens, who opposes a robust public option in the healthcare reform debate. He also opposes same-sex marriage, which is backed by Republican Dierdre Scozzafava, a New York assemblywoman since 1998. She is also pro-abortion rights. Among her supporters is former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Complicating the picture is the Conservative Party, which has long outgrown its origin as a cat's-paw of the GOP to become the tail that often wags the feline, at least in New York politics.

On the conservative side, riding a wave of discontent with Democrats and moderate Republicans is Doug Hoffman, who opposes gay and abortion rights and sees himself as the true Republican, having gained the endorsement of the GOP right, including the Club for Growth, the Family Research Council Action PAC and even former House Majority Leader Dick Armey. How to deal with conservatives has become a key question for the national GOP after a summer of tea-party demonstrations and abrasive town hall meetings.

Because this is an off-year election, it is sure to be seized on as another straw in the wind for 2010.

– Michael Muskal