NEW YORK (Reuters) - The Republican candidate in a closely watched U.S. congressional race in New York state abruptly suspended her campaign on Saturday in a move that could boost a conservative's battle against a Democrat next Tuesday.
Republican Dede Scozzafava was trailing in third place behind Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman and Democrat Bill Owens, who were neck-and-neck in the race to fill a House of Representatives seat left vacant when Republican John McHugh resigned to serve as President Barack Obama's Army secretary.
Prominent conservative organizations campaigned in New York's 23rd congressional district against Scozzafava, a moderate Republican who supports gay rights and abortion rights.
Hoffman was endorsed by 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, who is a darling of some in the U.S. conservative movement, and other senior Republicans. But former House Speaker Newt Gingrich backed Scozzafava.
The split in Republican ranks opened the possibility of a Democrat capturing the district bordering Canada for the first time since the second half of the 19th century.
Scozzafava said in a statement she had been outspent on both sides by her two opponents. She said it had become clear that pressure was mounting on many of her backers to shift their support.
"Consequently, I hereby release those individuals who have endorsed and supported my campaign to transfer their support as they see fit to do so," she said, declining to endorse either of her rivals.
Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele urged Scozzafava's supporters to shift their support to Hoffman and unite "around a candidate who shares Republican principles and will serve the interests of his constituents in Congress by standing in opposition to the liberal policies of President (Barack) Obama and (House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi."
The race will have negligible impact on the makeup of the House, which is heavily dominated by Democrats.
The New York campaign underscored the divided nature of the Republican Party as it tries to rebound from election losses in 2006 and 2008 that ousted the party from control of Congress and the White House.
Scozzafava said she hoped her move will help the Republican Party emerge stronger.
"On Election Day my name will appear on the ballot, but victory is unlikely. To those who support me -- and to those who choose not to -- I offer my sincerest thanks," she said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and Chris Michaud, editing by Alan Elsner)