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Republican officials in Washington will be nervously watching the results of todays primary in Idahos 1st district, where their highly touted candidate is struggling to secure the GOP nomination to challenge Rep. Walt Minnick (D).
Vaughn Ward, a Marine Corps veteran and former CIA official and Senate aide, has long been promoted by the National Republican Congressional Committee, which made him one of its vaunted first 10 Young Guns.
But a string of stumbles by Wards campaign has turned what should have been an easy primary win into an uncomfortably close race with state Rep. Raul Labrador, a staunch conservative who is running as a political outsider unafraid to take on his partys establishment.
Suddenly, there is the potential for another GOP establishment candidate to fall to an insurgent, as happened in last weeks Kentucky Senate primary.
Comparisons to Rand Pauls defeat of Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson only go so far, but the story of a Republican Party having trouble getting its preferred candidate through primaries could endure.
The most recent independent poll suggests there is no clear favorite in Idaho. A Mason-Dixon poll taken May 17-19 had Ward ahead of Labrador just 31 percent to 28 percent, with 37 percent undecided.
That margin is much narrower than in a poll conducted in early May by the Idaho-based firm Greg Smith & Associates, which had Ward ahead 34 percent to 16 percent with half of the electorate undecided.
The trend line certainly is going toward Raul, Smith said.
A Ward loss would be an embarrassing setback to the NRCC, which has placed a high priority on unseating Minnick, a first-term Democrat from a district that gave Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) 62 percent of its votes in 2008. Even a narrow win by Ward might raise questions about how carefully GOP officials vetted his candidacy.
Until a few weeks ago it was unthinkable that Ward might lose. He initiated his campaign more than 14 months ago and raised $576,000 through early May more than three times as much as the $174,000 raised by Labrador, who has loaned his campaign more than half of its funds.
But the past few weeks have been rocky for Ward, whose gaffes have accumulated to cast doubt on his strength and authenticity as a candidate.
Hes been on the defensive after revelations that he was delinquent in paying some property taxes, submitted an incomplete financial disclosure form and failed to vote in the 2008 general election. His campaign had to remove some issue statements from his Web site that were shown to be too similar to those of other Republicans.
And just in the past couple of days, Wards opponents have circulated a video excerpt of a campaign speech Ward delivered this year that closely resembles President Barack Obamas keynote address at the 2004 Democratic convention.
This has brought a barrage of negative press. A Sunday editorial in the Idaho Statesman declared Ward unendorseable and said he has proven himself untrustworthy. The other two major papers in the district also endorsed Labrador over Ward.
Mike Tracy, a former aide to ex-Sen. Larry Craig (R) who has served as Wards spokesman since he revamped his campaign two weeks ago, described the attacks as politics as usual and said Ward has taken the high road in the campaign.