Here is Doug Hoffman's claim to fame: at the tender age of 27, he became corporate comptroller of the Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games. That, and the 1955 Chevrolet he rebuilt when he was 16. Hoffman is an accountant, which makes him an unlikely public figure. He is even less likely as a political candidate, much less one who can win a nationally-watched special election in New York State. Less likely still is his new identity: conservative superstar of the future. And yet, here he is: a slow-talking, kindly-uncle-like, nerdy-looking optically challenged Republican Party savior. And he isn't even running as a Republican.

Hoffman is a candidate for Congress in New York's 23rd Congressional district.

He owns a six-branch accounting franchise across the district, which is huge, because the district is huge, spanning five different media markets. It has more land mass than any other district east of the Mississippi. It stretches from Lake Champlain to Lake Ontario; from the Canadian border down to south of Syracuse. It hasn't sent a Democrat to Congress since the Civil War.

The Club for Growth has just launched a $300,000 advertising campaign on his behalf. Erick Erickson's RedState is raising money for Hoffmann. Dick Armey, the former house majority leader, is campaigning for him. Former presidential candidate Fred Thompson is a supporter, and his wife, Jeri Thompson, availed herself of a Fox News appearance to sing Hoffman's praises. Blogger Michelle Malkin has urged her readers to "spread the word" about Hoffman. This morning, Hoffman appeared on Glenn Beck's radio program.

So what? So -- he's running against a fairly liberal Republican, Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava, and a Democrat, lawyer and military veteran Bill Owens, in a congressional district vacated by a beloved, long-serving Republican who left for a key defense position in the Obama administration. In theory, a Conservative Party candidate could win if the Republican and Democrat eat into each other's bases. Polls put Hoffman in third place now, but the trend is favorable.

Hoffman plays on several levels. He's avowedly conservative down the line: no to gay marriage, no to abortion, no to tax hikes, yes to strong defense, no on the stimulus bill, no to cap and trade. But importantly, for these times, he's populist: he gives a big, loud "no" to bank bailouts.

So -- he's running as Howard Dean ran when Democrats were the out-party and when activists believed that Democratic congressional leaders capitulated all too quickly to the Republican Party. Dean, you'll recall, famously began an early campaign speech by insisting he represented the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party. Hoffman doesn't have the luxury of running as a Republican, but his appeal is similar in kind: he's running against Republicans who are Democratic-lite. Scozzafava has been endorsed by the inside-the-beltway crowd, which is one reason why conservatives upset with the National Republican Congressional Committee's choices are flocking to Hoffman.

In that way, he fulfills a fantasy of those activists who believe that the real problem with Republicans is that they sacrifice principals for expediency. If only Republicans would act like true conservatives and proclaim their conservatism loudly and proudly -- they'd win. And -- and -- this is a district in New York State, not the South. Even Republicans who believe that the party's core deficiency is insufficient ideological rectitude know that the GOP has a message problem. "He is reflective of what is going on in the nation," his senior communications director, Rob Ryan, said. "He's a private citizen who had enough. That's reflective of all the people we see marching down in Washington, at the Tea Parties and events like that across the country."

To Hoffman, the race is a referendum on the future of the Republican Party and the first ten months of the Obama administration. If he loses, which is more likely than not, forget the latter. But he's already had an impact on the former.

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