An Inside Look at Next Week's N.Y. Special Election

By Anthony Salvanto and Mark Gersh
It is not surprising many Republicans see a chance to reverse their recent Northeast losing streak with a win in New York's 23rd congressional district this year, as it has been long-held by Republicans and they enjoy a registration edge over Democrats.

Its most recent occupant John McHugh held it since 1993 before leaving to become secretary of the Army, a move which brought on this special election November 3rd. But the news of late has been that many Republicans see this as something even more: a test for which kind of candidate the party ought to run - one more moderate or one traditionally conservative - and which is better prepared to beat a Democrat in an election.

Here's a look at the electorate in NY-23rd, and what to watch for as this unfolds:

The NY-23rd is New York's geographically largest district, a sprawling and mostly rural area running along the upper portion of New York state, the Adirondack mountains, and along the Great Lakes and border with Canada. As such, it is not typical of many other urban and suburban districts throughout much of the densely-populated Northeast – a region where Republicans have had a tough time of late. Republicans have lost six congressional seats in New York alone over the last two cycles. If they lose this one, there will be only one House Republican left in upstate New York. And there are none at all left in neighboring New England.

Facing off against the Democratic nominee Bill Owens (left), the Republican party nominee is State Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava (above) -- and they're joined on the ballot and challenged by third-party Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman, who has gained traction in public polls and gotten some high-profile endorsements from Sarah Palin and others, and appears to be drawing support from more traditionally conservative voters that may be turned off by some of Scozzafava's more moderate views.

Most recently Republican McHugh took 65 percent of the vote in 2008 in the district against 35 percent for the Democrat, suggesting that – if one transfers that same Republican support to this year - a split of GOP voters between Hoffman and Scozzafava would indeed make this profile as an election winnable by a candidate getting something north of one-third of the overall vote.

It is important to note, though, that McHugh's success does not necessarily mean the electorate in NY-23rd was automatically Republican going into this. On one hand, registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats here by around 45,000 votes. However, President Barack Obama won in this district (52 percent to 47 percent for John McCain) even as McHugh was carrying it comfortably, while four years earlier in 2004, President Bush won it narrowly. So it profiles as more of potential swing district – and certainly one that might be highly competitive for a Republican in a two-way race.

As with any special election, this could be an electorate different from 2008 or 2006 – though with all the attention on the race some speculate turnout could approach mid-term levels, and turnout in the New York 20th district's special election, which took place earlier in the year, was historically high for a special election.

With a district this geographically large, where voters come from could matter as much as anything. This race spans several media markets and geographical bases: Syracuse, Albany, Watertown and Plattsburg are all distinct areas.

The heavily Republican county of Jefferson figures to be at least one of the battlegrounds between Hoffman (left) and Scozzafava – in 2008 McHugh did very well there. Alongside Lake Ontario, St. Lawrence County and the town of Watertown is also worth watching to see if either the Republican or Conservative candidates can take back voters who backed Mr. Obama – this was a fairly large county where Mr. Obama did well, but so did Republican McHugh at the same time.

Meanwhile Democrat Bill Owens' chances probably ride on good turnout up in the northeastern corner of the district around the city of Plattsburgh (Clinton county) near Lake Champlain – the county is one of the few where Democratic registration vies with Republicans' – and also to build support in Oswego county, just north of Syracuse, where Mr. Obama did relatively well.

More Coverage of the Race:

Palin Snubs Republican Candidate in House Race
Pawlenty Backs Conservative Doug Hoffman in N.Y. House Race
Fred Thompson Stars in Ad for Conservative House Candidate

Anthony Salvanto is CBS News Elections Director. Mark Gersh is Washington Director, National Committee for an Effective Congress, and a CBS News Consultant.

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    Anthony Salvanto is CBS News elections director