WASHINGTON — North country Republican leaders ended weeks of speculation Wednesday about who will seek Rep. John M. McHugh's seat in Congress, giving state Assemblywoman Dierdre K. Scozzafava the nod over a handful of less well-known or politically seasoned candidates.
Ms. Scozzafava, R-Gouverneur, won unanimously on the third ballot among the Republican chairpersons of the 11 counties in the 23rd Congressional District, said St. Lawrence County GOP Chairwoman Nancy Martin.
Votes in prior rounds were split, and Ms. Scozzafava had a majority of the votes in the second round, Ms. Martin said.
"The feeling is overwhelming right now. What an honor," Ms. Scozzafava said after the vote at Sergi's Italian Restaurant in Potsdam. "What a team we have in place. We're in it to win it, and we will."
Republican officials said Ms. Scozzafava's name recognition and political experience tilted the odds in her favor. And while they said they were more concerned about what happened in their own camp, their decision reflected a belief that Ms. Scozzafava is best positioned to beat state Sen. Darrel J. Aubertine, D-Cape Vincent, should he become the Democrats' choice. Democrats set today as a deadline for candidates to declare their intentions, and Mr. Aubertine has said he is undecided.
"We had nine wonderful candidates, and I know what we produced today is the best candidate we could find," said James Ellis, who ran the balloting process as chairman of the Franklin County Republican Committee. "We've got to have a person who can get a job done. What we have here is a proven record, someone who can bring jobs here and stop this tax-and-spending nonsense."
The chairman of the Lewis County Republican Committee, Samuel F. Villante, praised Ms. Scozzafava as a "faithful representative to Lewis County" and added, "She's been accessible to people, so we know what her work style will be. She'll take that same work ethic to Congress."
The date for the special election remains unclear. Gov. David A. Paterson has said he will decide that after Mr. McHugh, R-Pierrepont Manor, is confirmed as Army secretary, but Mr. McHugh's confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee is days away at the earliest.
One of Ms. Scozzafava's most vigorous and well-funded rivals, Matthew A. Doheny, praised her Wednesday night as "terrific" and said he would work toward her election.
"I'm going to do everything I can for her, and more," Mr. Doheny aid.
Ms. Scozzafava's selection puts the north country square in the moderate wing of the Republican party, perhaps more so than with Mr. McHugh. She has irked conservatives with her support of abortion rights and gay marriage but those views — plus her solid connections with organized labor — could make her an appealing candidate for Democrats and independents. Her husband, Ron McDougall, is president of the organized labor council for St. Lawrence, Jefferson and Lewis counties.
Ms. Scozzafava all but said as much in a telephone interview Wednesday, noting that the north country has leaned more toward Democrats in recent elections and no longer is the lock the Republicans once considered it. President Barack Obama won the district last year, and Mr. Aubertine's election twice has chipped away at Republican dominance in parts of the congressional district.
"I don't think there are any foregone conclusions," Ms. Scozzafava said.
Mr. McHugh, should he be confirmed, will not be in a position to endorse any candidate. He has told north country Republican officials not to expect him to back a candidate.
In a preview of what north country voters may see in the special election, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched automated phone calls, television ads and a mass mailing, all attacking Mr. Aubertine for budget votes in Albany and calling him a tax-and-spend liberal.
But Ms. Scozzafava criticized those ads and the NRCC's involvement and said she was concerned about negative advertising against Mr. Aubertine "at this time."
"I would prefer to run my own grass-roots campaign," Ms. Scozzafava said.
Tagging Mr. Aubertine a liberal may prove a delicate tactic, given that he is pro-life and voted against gay marriage rights — stances that put him in clear contrast to the House Democratic leadership. But Republicans also point to his votes in favor of higher taxes in Albany.
On the Democratic side, Mr. Aubertine continued to hold the party in suspense. He said on Tuesday that he had not made up his mind, but did not return repeated messages on Wednesday. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Mr. Aubertine's spokesman, Drew A. Mangione, tried to tamp down rumors that Mr. Aubertine was on his way to Washington, or had been, to talk with national Democratic officials, who may be pressuring him to run.
Mr. Aubertine's hedging has cost other Democratic hopefuls some momentum, as no one can gear up a campaign until his intentions are known. One often-mentioned candidate, Daniel J. French, had not submitted a resume to Democratic officials as of Wednesday and said that doing so would be premature because Mr. Aubertine is the presumed candidate.
"I'm convinced that Sen. Aubertine intends to run," Mr. French said.
Times staff writer Steve Virkler contributed to this report.