GOP leads in race for McHugh seat

New York Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (R) has an early advantage in the race to fill Army Secretary John McHugh's old House seat, according to a new survey released Thursday.

Scozzafava is the pick of 35 percent of district voters, outpacing attorney Bill Owens (D), at 28 percent, and Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, who picks up 16 percent, according to the Siena Research Institute poll. Scozzafava posts a lead in three of the district's western counties, the district's population center, while Owens leads in three central counties.

"This is a wide-open race," said Steve Greenberg, the college's pollster. Greenberg said Hoffman's presence means "the winner of the race will likely not win with a majority of the votes cast, but a plurality."

Though the race has barely begun — Gov. David Paterson (D) set the date for the election, Nov. 3, on Tuesday — backers of all three candidates have turned negative early.

Both Owens and Hoffman are slamming Scozzafava for her votes in Albany, with Hoffman calling her a liberal and Democrats portraying her as another vote against President Barack Obama's agenda, should she head to Washington.

Meanwhile, in an advertisement running throughout the district, Republicans portray Owens as the hand-picked candidate of Washington, calling him a rubber stamp for the Obama administration's healthcare proposals if he goes to Congress.

The GOP is also taking aim at Hoffman, calling him unelectable and untrustworthy for actions he took while campaigning for the Republican line. Before Scozzafava was picked by county party chairmen, Hoffman pledged to support the eventual nominee, though he claimed to have gotten into the race only after learning of Scozzafava's positions, a notion Republican officials dispute.

Scozzafava's campaign has dubbed Hoffman "Dishonest Doug."

But Hoffman is giving Republicans reason to worry. He has been endorsed by several right-leaning organizations like the American Conservative Union, Citizens United, Club for Growth and former Sen. Fred Thompson's (R-Tenn.) political action committee.

Hoffman has run a campaign almost entirely focused on attacking Scozzafava, using his first advertisement to criticize her voting record. Meanwhile, Owens's first advertisements have been positive spots. Scozzafava has yet to go on the air herself, but the National Republican Congressional Committee is airing the spots challenging Owens.

Scozzafava spokesman Matt Burns said the poll shows evidence that attacks on the Republican aren't working.

"Despite the fact Dede has been under constant attack by her opponents and their special-interest backers since John McHugh was confirmed, Dede is running strong. Today's poll reaffirms that Dede is the only candidate in this race with the solid base needed to win and build upon the legacy of John McHugh," Burns said in a statement.

The poll shows that neither Owens nor Scozzafava has definitive advantages on any of the top issues voters in the district are concerned with. Asked which candidate would do a better job on key issues, voters gave both the Democrat and the Republican between a fifth and a quarter of their support on the economy, healthcare, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and education.

Owens' campaign dismissed the poll results, promising to continue traveling the district to talk about his plans.

"Polls come and go, but we remain focused on our own campaign," the campaign said in a statement. "The support we have received so far has been overwhelming, and we expect it will only grow as more Upstate New Yorkers learn about Bill's record of creating jobs and his service at Plattsburgh Air Force Base."

None of the candidates are particularly well-known around New York's largest geographical district. Scozzafava is seen in a positive light by 33 percent of voters, while 20 percent view her unfavorably. Owens' favorable rating, 23 percent, and his unfavorable rating, 12 percent, are also lower. Just 16 percent see Hoffman favorably, with 13 percent saying they see him unfavorably.

The survey was conducted Sunday through Tuesday among 622 respondents who said they were likely to vote in November. The margin of error was plus or minus 3.9 percent.

-- This article was updated at 11:15 a.m.