WASHINGTON - What began as a little-noticed congressional campaign in upstate New York has become a high-profile battle for the direction of the Republican Party, and it could play a big role in the GOP's approach to the 2010 elections and beyond.

With Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman mounting a serious challenge to moderate Republican Dede Scozzafava and Democrat Bill Owens, prominent Republicans are splitting support between Hoffman and Scozzafava, providing an unusually raw display of the party's divisions.

Supporters of Mr. Hoffman, including former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, say the GOP needs to return to its conservative roots. Backers of Scozzafava, such as former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, say the party must embrace centrists who can capture swing districts.

There have been few neutral surveys in recent weeks, but polls backed by both liberal and conservative groups suggest this has become a two-person race between Owens and Hoffman. Democrats, clearly viewing it that way, have been aiming their fire at Hoffman.

The vacancy occurred when President Barack Obama chose the district's eight-term congressman, Rep. John McHugh, to serve as secretary of the Army.

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