Candidates seeking Murtha seat shun President Obama’s policies

Both candidates seeking to replace the late Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) are running against President Barack Obama’s top domestic priorities.

Tuesday’s special election in the 12th district of Pennsylvania is a far cry from the two special elections in New York last year, where the Democratic candidates touted their connection to Obama and subsequently triumphed in swing districts.

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A former Murtha aide, Mark Critz, is facing Republican businessman Tim Burns in a race dominated by national issues and the legacy of Murtha, a veteran appropriator who represented the southwest Pennsylvania district for 36 years.

Critz has vowed to tap Murtha’s legendary network to keep federal dollars flowing to the district while distancing himself from virtually every major issue on the national Democratic agenda. An opponent of abortion rights and gun control, he has said he would have voted against the healthcare reform and climate change bills. Murtha backed both pieces of legislation.

In a recent debate, Critz said he would be “an independent voice” in Congress, disputing Burns’s claims that he would be another vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) liberal agenda.

“Nobody tells me what to do,” Critz said. “I do what I think is right.”

While Pelosi and Vice President Joe Biden have raised money for Critz, the ex-Murtha staffer has not publicly sought an endorsement or a visit from Obama to the district, which swung to GOP nominee Sen. John McCain in 2008 after supporting Sen. John Kerry (D) for the presidency in 2004 and Vice President Al Gore in 2000.

Like Obama, Critz supports repealing the military’s “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. But in his debate with Burns, he didn’t credit Obama for seeking the change. Instead, he said he was deferring to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who called on Congress to repeal the directive put in place during the Clinton administration.

Mullen “is a pretty smart guy,” Critz said at the time. Burns countered that “Don’t ask, don’t tell” has been working.

It is not terribly surprising that Critz has distanced himself from the president.

Obama’s approval ratings in the 12th district have hovered in the 30s and he was soundly defeated by Hillary Rodham Clinton in Pennsylvania in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary.

But Critz’s campaign is at odds with how Democrats in Washington have been governing in 2010. Soon after Scott Brown’s triumph in Massachusetts, Democrats went on the offensive, defending their work on healthcare reform. And despite predictions of its demise, the bill was signed into law two months after Brown’s win.

The national parties and a bevy of outside interest groups have poured money into Tuesday’s special election. The candidates have also trotted out big-name surrogates in the closing days: former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) are campaigning for Critz while Brown stumped for Burns on Friday.

The goal is to win a key momentum boost – not to mention a House seat – heading into the November midterms.

“It is truly a national barometer,” said G. Terry Madonna, polling director at Pennsylvania’s Franklin and Marshall College. If Democrats lose, he said, “It confirms their worst fears that this could be another 1994.”

A Democratic win, on the other hand, would calm party nerves and raise doubts about whether the predicted Republican wave will be strong enough to carry the GOP into the majority.

Republicans are hoping a fired up Republican base will lead Burns to victory and Democrats are banking on a strong turnout by party loyalists voting in the closely watched Senate primary between Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.).

“There’s no question this race is neck-and-neck. It’s going down to the wire,” said Tory Mazzola, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Critz’s strategy has departed sharply from the 2009 campaigns of Democratic Reps. Scott Murphy and Bill Owens in New York. Both of them supported Obama’s stimulus and his effort to overhaul the nation’s healthcare system.

“Candidates need to reflect their districts, the values and priorities of their voters,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“When Bill Owens was running, one of the issues was the health reform bill. And he, after talking to his constituents, decided to support it. And in Scott Murphy’s case, the issue in that race was the economic recovery bill. And his opponent came out against it, Murphy came out for it, and he’s very pleased with his position on it,” Van Hollen said in an interview with The Hill.

The key issue in the Pennsylvania race has been jobs and the economy. Pointing to his record as a businessman, Burns has touted himself as the only candidate in the race to create jobs. Critz has responded by labeling Burns an “out of touch millionaire” who used his company to outsource local jobs.

“He’s running against a guy who helped use the American tax system to send jobs overseas and Mark Critz has been very focused on that contrast, as he should,” Van Hollen said.

Burns campaign spokesman Kent Gates fired back at Van Hollen, saying, "It did not happen ever, period. He's lying. Just because the Critz campaign, Chris Van Hollen and the DCCC want things to be true doesn't mean that they are and these attacks are not based on fact and they have no way to prove them.”

Gates pointed out that Sinclair Broadcasting Co. in Pittsburgh suspended the airing of DCCC ads that lobbed similar attacks on Burns.

Bob Cusack contributed to this article