Johnstown, Pa. (AP) - In what was the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha's western Pennsylvania district - reachable through John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport or John P. Murtha Highway - Democrats watch nervously, hoping his former top aide can hold on to the House seat.
Mark Critz, who worked for Murtha for more than a decade in Pennsylvania, including the past three as district director, is in a fierce fight with Republican businessman Tim Burns in the May 18 special election. The national GOP has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to push Burns' candidacy, sensing a legitimate shot of capturing the seat held for 36 years by Murtha, an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
A loss would unnerve Democrats, who face the backlash against the party in power typical for a midterm election year, and depress the outlook for the party's other candidates in Pennsylvania, which Barack Obama won easily in 2008.
Democrats hold a roughly 2-to-1 registration edge in the socially conservative, blue-collar district marked by old steel mills, coal mines - and projects named for Murtha, who was the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. He died in February at age 77 from complications of gallbladder surgery.
Growing opposition to Obama and the Democrats, tea party-driven discontent and unhappiness with the president's health care law give Republicans hope that the 42-year-old Burns, who lives in Eighty Four, can win.
"This year, we have mobilized millions of people from all over the country, and they are ready to take back this country. It's going to start right here, right now in this district on May 18," Burns said at a recent fundraiser in Latrobe featuring former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga.
At a recent Pittsburgh fundraiser for Critz, Vice President Joe Biden said: "This guy's the real deal."
Critz, 48, of Johnstown, says he's "pro-life, pro-gun" and determined to help a district hard-hit by job losses - policy positions that mirror Murtha's.
Burns calls for lower taxes and repeal of the health care law. Critz highlights his experience helping his former boss bring more economic development to the region as his own strength.
The two candidates sparred over taxes and who would be less beholden to Washington at Wednesday night's debate.
"You keep talking about Washington, D.C. I'm worried about Washington, Pa.," Critz said.
"Do you want someone who has grown up in government or someone who has grown up in the real world?" asked Burns.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $641,000, according to Federal Election Commission records. Along with pro-Critz ads, the committee has run ads accusing Burns of selling a company to a corporation that "used a tax loophole which encourages sending American jobs overseas" and supporting a 23 percent "national sales tax."
The National Republican Campaign Committee has spent roughly $728,000 - all opposing Critz, FEC records show. Their ads link Critz to Pelosi and what is said to be a liberal agenda in Washington.
One Republican ad, without mentioning Murtha's name, questioned Critz's ethics, saying he was investigated as a staffer in a House probe.
Critz called the spot misleading and he defended Murtha. Critz responded in an ad that said the Republican commercial has "gone way too far when you attack someone who is no longer here to defend himself."
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also spent $100,000 on behalf of Burns.
"This has grown much more than (just) local politics," Critz said recently at an appearance before a Democratic women's group in Johnstown. "But really, it's about local politics, it's about the economy, it's about jobs."
Next week, Republican Sen. Scott Brown, who knows something about winning special elections, will attend a rally for Burns. Brown captured the Massachusetts Senate seat of the late Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy in January. Former New York Gov. George Pataki and Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a favorite of the party's right, also will campaign for Burns. Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia crossed the state line to campaign for Critz this week.
Recent federal campaign finance reports showed Burns with $387,000 on hand at the end of March; he had lent himself $225,000. Critz had $330,000 on hand and no loans.
Anchored in Pennsylvania's southwestern corner, the district snakes out haphazardly to the east and north, reaching out to Washington and Latrobe. The district's eastern hub is the Murtha stronghold of Johnstown. It has a significant number of older voters and remnants of a labor constituency.
Evelyn Mrsnik, 65, of Johnstown, said her concern is job growth.
Critz "gave me a lot of peace of mind that these companies are going to be able to stay here, and they are going to be self-sufficient, and I'm sure he's going to bring in more jobs, too," Mrsnik said after Critz spoke to the dozen or so members of the East Hills Federated Democratic Women's Club.
The district can be difficult to predict. Democrat John Kerry won it in the 2004 presidential election and Republican John McCain claimed it in 2008. Critz and Burns likely will get to do it again in November as they are seeking party nominations on May 18.
"I think this will be one of the races where the people of western Pennsylvania show the folks what they really think of what's going on in Washington," Brian O'Connor, 44, an insurance executive from Latrobe, said at a Burns fundraiser.
In what was the late U.S. Rep. John Murtha's western Pennsylvania district - reachable through John Murtha Johnstown-Cambria County Airport or John P. Murtha Highway - Democrats watch nervously, hoping his former top aide can hold on to the House seat.