Beleaguered Murtha Stalls in Pennsylvania

Monday, 03 Nov 2008 04:42 PM

By Nat Helms

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On the eve of the election, Pennsylvania polls show 17-term Democratic U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha in a statistical tie with upstart Republican challenger William Russell.

Russell has closed within percentage points of the perennial winner in the most recent Susquehanna Poll, well within the poll’s 5-point margin of error.

Murtha, who is under fire for calling his constituents racists and rednecks and referring to a Marine hero as a “cold-blooded murderer,” is scrambling to retain his seat in the 12th Congressional District. Underscoring his desperation was a recent e-mail from campaign fundraiser Susan O’Neill asking supporters to help the 76-year-old Democrat stay in the race.

“We need to raise another $1 million to compete,” O’Neill wrote last week. “We need money immediately.”

Murtha’s race appeared to tighten after he called his western Pennsylvania district a “racist area” several weeks ago. He apologized by explaining that the region was “really redneck” until recently.

Peg Luksik, Russell’s campaign manager, said, “People don’t like being made into a punch line. Who wants to be called ‘the redneck from western Pennsylvania’ when they go somewhere?”

Murtha, chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee on Defense, has made a career of unabashedly pursuing pork-barrel projects for his coal-rich, job-poor district. He was running on a similar platform until his recent comments sparked criticism and the perennial incumbent fell from grace, Luksik said.

Challenger Russell is a 46-year-old retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Gulf War veteran who settled in Murtha’s district after ending his 20-year military career. In an eerie replay of retired Naval officer John McCain’s first bid for political office in Arizona, Murtha attacked Russell as an outsider sent to Pennsylvania to unseat him.

Like McCain, Russell explained that he had never lived anywhere for very long, as he had spent much of his adult life defending his country. The issue quickly dropped.

In May 2006, Murtha called a squad of Marines “cold-blooded killers” on international television for their role in the affair at Haditha, Iraq, in November 2005. Murtha accused officers of covering up the incident. Two of the Marines, including a young Marine from Murtha’s home district, have sued him in federal court for slander.

Veterans in Pennsylvania were aghast that Murtha, himself a former Marine, would turn on his colleagues in such a fashion. Their vocal opposition to his remarks touched off the movement that helped push Russell into the forefront of Pennsylvania politics.

Russell took the high ground after Murtha called his constituents and their neighbors racists and rednecks.

“What Mr. Murtha did was attribute the lowest possible motivations to our voters,” Russell explained in a letter to supporters. “The people in this area tend to vote their values. To say that they are racist because they won’t vote for Obama overlooks the fact that Sen. Obama has an almost radical pro-abortion platform, as well as a very anti-gun platform. This shows that Murtha has clearly lost touch with the voters.”

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