Pro-gun, pro-life and anti-Obamacare isn't the typical Democratic candidate's message - but it may be the party's best hope for holding on to the late Rep. John P. Murtha's seat in the increasingly conservative coal country of western Pennsylvania.
Mark Critz, a longtime aide to Mr. Murtha, was the handpicked choice of Democratic Party leaders to finish his boss's unexpired term and was expected - in a district that has twice as many registered Democrats as Republicans - to romp in May 18's special election for the seat Mr. Murtha held for 36 years.
But Pennsylvania's 12th District has been trending conservative the past few elections - Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain carried the district in 2008 - and now Mr. Critz, a Murtha staff member since 1994, is deadlocked with GOP contender and "tea party" organizer Tim Burns.
Mr. Critz is suddenly scrambling to distance himself from Washington.
"I opposed the health care bill. And I'm pro-life and pro-gun. That's not liberal," Mr. Critz said in a recent ad.
It's a prickly sound bite from a candidate getting help on the stump from heavy hitters such as Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and significant financial support from Washington's Democratic establishment, including almost $500,000 from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
FireDogLake, a progressive blog, sarcastically noted that Democratic donors, "particularly pro-choice and pro-gun-control ones, are thrilled to know that Mark Critz plans to vote against every single one of their beliefs, and that they helped put him in office." Mr. Murtha himself was pro-gun.
On Tuesday, Mr. Critz took another hit, this one from the region's largest daily, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The paper criticized Mr. Critz's "hedged and cautious" platform and endorsed 35-year-old Navy veteran Ryan Bucchianeri, Mr. Critz's underfunded opponent in the Democratic primary, also on May 18.
Two separate contests will be held that day: Mr. Critz and Mr. Burns are battling in the special election to fill the last several months of Mr. Murtha's term, and both are competing in their party primaries for the right to run again in November for a full two-year term starting in January.
Polls suggest that Mr. Burns, in particular, faces the unusual chance that he will win the special election but not get his party's nomination to run for re-election in November.
Mr. Burns said he was inspired to seek public office after organizing "tea party" rallies in the region. The 42-year-old businessman has stiff competition in the GOP primary, but he has focused his campaign on the special election, hammering Mr. Critz as a "career bureaucrat."
"There's a clear choice here: You want more of the Washington-as-usual approach, you vote for Mark Critz. He's a Washington insider who thinks that government creates jobs. The company I started employed more than 400 people," Mr. Burns said in a phone interview Monday. "This is a choice between the ultimate insider and someone who has made it in the real world."
Mr. Burns has been skeptical of the anti-Washington tone his opponent is taking in his television ads.
"He waited until after the health care bill was passed before he announced he would have voted against it. [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi isn't raising money for Mark Critz because she thinks he's a nice guy," Mr. Burns said. "She is confident - as I am confident - that once he is in Washington, he will vote in lockstep with her."
Mr. Critz did not respond to phone calls or e-mails from The Washington Times for comment, but he has fired back at Mr. Burns, accusing him of "smearing" Mr. Murtha's record.
The possibility that Mr. Burns could capture a seat long held by Democrats has created a national buzz. Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin endorsed the self-made millionaire, and another Republican "outsider," Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, is stumping for the Burns campaign.
If the Republican wins on May 18, it would be the first time a House seat has flipped to the GOP in a competitive special election since Mr. Obama took office and would serve notice that big changes could be coming in November.
Polls this week show Mr. Burns ahead or locked in a dead heat with Mr. Critz in the special election, but even if he beats Mr. Critz, there's no guarantee Mr. Burns will be on the ballot in November.
Mr. Burns is facing a formidable challenge in the Republican primary from Bill Russell, who ran a surprisingly tough campaign in 2008 against Mr. Murtha. The state party leadership passed over Mr. Russell for the special election, but the Iraq veteran isn't backing down in his bid to win the GOP primary for the November race.
In the first-quarter filing period, Mr. Russell outraised both Mr. Critz and Mr. Burns.
According to the Johnstown Tribune Democrat, Mr. Russell reported $737,365 in contributions from Jan. 1 to March 31, Mr. Critz posted $376,088 and Mr. Burns raised $225,936.
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