NEW YORK — Top-level Republican feuding is transforming an obscure congressional election next week into a referendum on the beleaguered party's direction ahead of the 2012 White House battle.

The November 3 election will fill a vacated congressional seat in upstate New York, but the focus is not so much on the Democratic-Republican rivalry as on fighting between Republicans themselves.

Party chiefs -- including potential candidates for the 2012 presidential election -- are at loggerheads over whether to support the local Republican candidate or an insurgent backed by the little-known Conservative Party.

The result in New York's 23rd District is a tight, three-way race pitting Democrat Bill Owens against the official Republican choice, Dede Scozzafava, and the rapidly gaining conservative champion Douglas Hoffman.

The result will barely change the balance of power in Washington, where President Barack Obama's Democrats took control of the House of Representatives last year.

But the rancorous debate over whether to support the moderate Scozzafava or more deeply conservative Hoffman illustrates a nationwide struggle for the Republican soul.

While Scozzafava opposes Obama's health care reforms and backs gun ownership rights, she fails on numerous conservative tests, including with her support for abortion and same-sex marriage.

Big Republican guns behind Hoffman's insurgency include former Alaskan governor and failed vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, and also Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty -- both believed to nurse White House ambitions.

They see Hoffman, an accountancy executive, as emblematic of a vigorous anti-Obama movement most famous for noisy "Tea Party" protests.

Hoffman "understands the federal government needs to quit spending so much, will vote against tax increases, and protect key values," Pawlenty said Monday.

Palin described Hoffman, not Scozzafava as the real Republican.

"Unfortunately, the Republican Party today has decided to choose a candidate who more than blurs the lines, and there is no real difference between the Democrat and the Republican in this race," she wrote on her Facebook page last week.

Former senator and TV actor Fred Thompson cast his support for the conservative rebellion in epic language, saying: "America is in trouble... When your grandchildren ask you why you didn't do something, be able to tell them you voted for Doug Hoffman."

Leading the defense of Scozzafava is Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and one of the Republicans' major figures.

In an interview with Fox Television on Monday, he said the party's future lay in the big tent concept, rather than in narrowing down to the loyal core.

"This idea that we're going suddenly to establish litmus tests, and all across the country we're going to purge the party of anybody who doesn't agree with us 100 percent -- that guarantees Obama's reelection," he said.

"You strengthen yourself by attracting more people, not by driving people away."

Scott Stanzel, a publicity consultant who was a White House spokesman under Obama's Republican predecessor George W. Bush, said the party erred in picking Scozzafava.

"They didn't understand the mood of the party, the people at the grassroots," he told AFP. "Mr Hoffman, I would argue, is more reflective of the broad majority of Republicans."

He dismissed analysts' talk of a Republican civil war and said the potential 2012 candidates were just maneuvering.

But Leslie Feldman, a professor of political science at Hofstra University, said the stakes in the 23rd district were high.

"This will reflect poorly on them if that conservative candidate doesn't win. It will reflect poorly on the prominent conservatives -- they have gone out on a limb," she said.

"I would go with Newt Gingrich. I think he is positioning himself to be a possibly future candidate for president."

The latest poll by Siena College on October 15 showed Owens with 33 percent, Scozzafava with 29 percent, and Hoffman with 23 percent.

The election is being held to replace John McHugh, a long-serving Republican congressman appointed by Obama as secretary of the army.