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NY House special election seen as Obama's 1st test

Two months ago, it would have been hard for the most ardent political wonk to find the state's 20th Congressional District on a map. On Tuesday, it will be the center of the American political landscape, with Republicans hoping desperately a win there will knock President Barack Obama off stride and Democrats looking to build on the momentum of the past two years.

Republican Jim Tedisco, a state legislator for 27 years, faces Democrat Scott Murphy, abusinessman who has the backing of the president and influential unions. The special election is toreplace Kirsten Gillibrand, who was named to the U.S. Senate in January after former Sen. HillaryRodham Clinton became secretary of state.

The contest quickly became about issues far beyond the sprawling, mostly rural district, whichstretches along the Hudson River valley from just north of the New York City suburbs to just belowthe Canadian border. Voters will flip levers for Murphy and Tedisco, but national leaders will see ajudgment on a president, his plan to save the economy and the strength of the country's twodominant political parties.

For Obama, who sent an e-mail urging supporters to help Murphy and appeared in a television adbought by the Democratic National Committee, this is the first electoral test since he took office.Getting a Democrat elected would show his popularity even as his stimulus package is criticized fora loophole allowing the bailed-out American International Group Inc. insurance company to awardmillions of dollars in bonuses to its executives. It also would add muscle to his efforts to pass abudget despite tax increases that worry even some Democrats.

Murphy, 39, said when he decided to run he never anticipated an endorsement from the president. "I'm humbled," said Murphy, who lives in Glens Falls.

Both campaigns turned up get-out-the-vote efforts in the final days of the campaign.

Tedisco, 58, said he was campaigning 24 hours a day, with a goal of hitting every diner in thedistrict by Tuesday. On Saturday and Sunday he knocked on 400 doors to talk to voters, and heplanned to hit all 10 counties in the district in the final three days of the campaign. By Sunday, he'dbeen in six.

Tedisco lives outside the district, in Glenville, an issue Democrats brought up often, so he can'tvote for himself.

Murphy, a Columbia, Mo., native, also was traversing the district over the weekend and got helpSunday from Gillibrand and the state's powerful senior Sen. Charles Schumer, No. 3 in the SenateDemocrats' command structure and the architect of Democratic election victories in 2006 and 2008.

A win for Tedisco, the Assembly's minority leader, could calm critics of Republican NationalCommittee Chair Michael Steele's uneven attempts to lead the party out of a slump that began withdismal federal elections in 2006 and continued in 2008. Steele focused on the 20th district as one ofthe national Republican party's top priorities for 2009. He's made two appearances supportingTedisco and put $200,000 into the race.

A win would be "a step forward in our fight back to the majority," said Paul Lindsay, a spokesmanfor the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Democrats view the race as a referendum on policy pushed by Obama and say a vote for Tedisco isan endorsement of the highly criticized administration of former President George W. Bush.

Voters will have to decide if they want "to return to the failed Bush economic policies that got usinto this mess to begin with," said Shripal Shah, a spokesman for the Democratic CongressionalCampaign Committee.

At a Murphy rally Sunday, Preston Jenkins, a 66-year-old from the town of Moreau in the northernpart of the district, said the election was about more than even Obama.

"I think they're (the Democratic Party) looking for some kind of psychological change in the wholeAmerican public, and it's kind of strange it would be a district like us that that would happen," hesaid of the traditional Republican stronghold.

Each candidate raised more than $1 million to go with the buckets of cash spent by national groups.The NRCC spent more than $817,000, much of it on television ads, while The National RepublicanTrust Political Action Committee dumped in more than $765,000, funding some of the most negativeads against Murphy. The DCCC has spent more than $574,000 supporting Murphy.

The ads turned increasingly negative in the closing days of the campaign.

Tedisco sought to link Murphy directly to Obama's $787 billion stimulus package, part of whichprotected the bonuses at AIG after the company received billions of dollars in federal aid.

Murphy repeatedly pounded on Tedisco for failing to say how he would have voted on the stimuluspackage, which the Democrat said would create or save thousands of jobs in the economicallydistressed district. Tedisco eventually said he would have opposed the stimulus plan, saying it wasfull of "pork" projects for hometown lawmakers.

Polls indicate a close race to fill the seat opened when Gov. David Paterson appointed Gillibrand, a Democrat, to the Senate. An early survey had Murphy trailing by 12 percentage points, but a Friday poll by Siena College showed him with a lead of 4percentage points. The Siena poll had a sampling margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Republicans, who held the district for decades, have taken a pounding in New York in the past twoelection cycles. They lost three congressional seats in 2006 and three more last year, leaving justthree Republicans in the 29-seat state delegation.

The district has more than 196,000 registered Republicans, about 125,000 Democrats and 118,000unaffiliated voters.

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