For Murtha's Old Seat, a Surprising Sameness

JOHNSTOWN, Pa. ' Few Congressional candidates get the chance for a rematch less than six months after a loss.

That makes Republican Tim Burns' strategy of employing the same campaign playbook he used during his unsuccessful bid to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D) all the more curious.

It has been almost five months since Burns lost the special election to Mark Critz (D), a former Murtha aide. And despite losing by a surprisingly healthy margin, Burns is by and large running the same race all over again.

He's pounding on Critz as an ally of Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the vilified California Democrat, and arguing that Critz exemplifies Washington's wrong-direction policies on health care and the economy.

Burns said in an interview that several factors worked against him in May, including the bruising he suffered in the Republican primary and the presence of a Libertarian Party candidate on the special election ballot, who siphoned away precious conservative votes.

'After the special election, I wasn't even sure for a couple days what my chances were going to be,' he said. 'But we very quickly realized what happened and why this was going to be different in the fall.'

In Burns' eyes, he doesn't need to change because since May, the road has risen to meet him.

'We've been focused on the same things: jobs, the economy, repealing health care, keeping taxes low and stopping the out-of-control spending,' Burns said. 'It just so happens that the concerns that we have in this district are the same concerns that people have nationally.'

Republicans across the country have picked up significant momentum in the past few months as the political current against Democrats has intensified. During a Tuesday dinner with supporters, Burns sought to convey that message, reassuring the Washington County Republican Party that this election's outcome would be different, even if his campaign pitch is the same.

'Tim's got a lot of momentum going. I think he's finally taken his stride,' said Thomas Uram, the chairman of the Washington County Republicans.

Polling has been tricky in the 12th district. Burns supporters went to bed on May 19 thinking Burns and Critz were in a statistical dead heat, but they awoke to the news that Burns had lost by 8 points. A recent poll of 400 likely voters by Harrisburg-based Susquehanna Polling & Research had Critz up 43 percent to Burns' 36 percent with 21 percent undecided. The margin of error was 4.9 points.

[IMGCAP(1)]Both Burns and his supporters think turnout will be in his favor this time around now that the momentum has so strongly shifted to the GOP. In May, Democratic voters turned out big to cast ballots in the Senate primary race in which Rep. Joe Sestak defeated Sen. Arlen Specter.

Sensing the potential for a favorable turnout, Burns has embraced national party figures such as Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), whom he says he will support for Speaker if Republicans win the House in November.

Asked about the Republican 'Pledge to America' agenda, Burns said it was a 'good start' but that he was 'rarely' asked about it on the campaign trail.

'I'm supporting it, but I haven't made it a central theme in my campaign,' he said.

Meanwhile, Critz is distancing himself as much as possible from the Murtha legacy of party loyalty. Critz has not taken a stand on whether Pelosi should remain Speaker and has emphasized his independence over party politics.

Critz said his biggest challenge is to make sure his message can resonate above the money coming into his district by independent groups looking to unseat him.

'It's just making sure that my message gets out there,' he said. 'I'm being actually crucified on TV from several different groups that come in and spend exorbitant amounts of money to paint me as the bad American.'

The campaigns seek to tie Critz directly to Pelosi, but he says that since arriving in Congress a few months ago, he has voted 70 percent of the time with conservative Republican Rep. Tim Murphy (Pa.) and nearly 60 percent of the time with Boehner.

Jim Johnston, the director of operations at Bucyrus America Inc., a manufacturing plant that Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and Critz toured Tuesday, called the ads 'brutal.'

Asked whether he was a Critz supporter, Johnston said: 'He definitely is a supporter of the industry itself, and he's from Western Pennsylvania. He understands the energy needs of this area.'

Sitting in his campaign office in his hometown of Johnstown, Critz confessed that the eight months of constant campaigning has started to wear on him. Yet, it also has him energized.

'I'm just doing what I need to do. It's the same thing I did in the spring,' he said. 'This was way bigger than I ever expected. I'm just concentrating on what I need to do for 15 more days, and I'm hopeful that my hard work and the independent voice that I've given the people of this area is going to carry me through.'

He said the long race has made him appreciate how Murtha could spend the day visiting everyone at a big business conference and then turn to tired aides such as Critz and say, 'What's next?'

'Now, being the Congressman, I sort of understand it,' he said. 'It's this adrenaline.'

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