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« Sessions: 40 Or Bust | Blog Home Page | Indiana Republicans Battle For Conservative Mantle »

In PA-12 Special, Democrat Seeks Distance From His Party

Mark Critz was in Washington Tuesday night, feted by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Congressional Democrats who hope he'll join their caucus after a special election next month to replace the late John Murtha. Later this week, Vice President Joe Biden heads to Pennsylvania's 12th Congressional district to join Critz on the stump.

But even as he benefits from the support of his party's heavyweights, Critz is taking pains to distance himself from its agenda as the vote draws nearer. Most conspicuously, the former Murtha aide launched a television ad this weekend in which -- with his voice apparently hoarse from the campaign trail -- he aims to set the record straight and declares his opposition to the health care law passed and signed last month. It was a response to an ad from the National Republican Campaign Committee which said Critz "will put the liberal agenda before Pennsylvania."

"I'm pro life and pro gun. That's not a liberal," Critz says in his own spot.

Critz's camp also says he opposes a proposed cap-and-trade law, something Murtha voted for when the House first acted on it last year.

These positions reflect the unique character of the district. Democrats have a heavy registration advantage on paper, and Murtha won his seat consistently with little trouble. But it was the only seat in the country carried by John Kerry in 2004 but not by Barack Obama four years later. In the heart of steel and coal country, the Democrats here are far more conservative than the national party, as Murtha was on many issues.

While Critz walks this fine line, his opponent is calling him out. To coincide with Tuesday night's fundraiser, Republican Tim Burns' campaign issued a release accusing him of "political double talk," asking: "If we can't trust candidate Mark Critz to be honest about his real support for Nancy Pelosi's agenda, why would we ever send him to Congress?"

Ahead of Biden's visit on Friday, Burns' campaign web site promotes a "money-bomb," with a goal of $50,000 for the campaign to counter the vice president and his "anti-coal, government-run health care, higher taxes agenda."

Burns is also drawing the support of his national party. Not far from Critz's Washington fundraiser Tuesday, national Republicans held one of their own for their nominee. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is set to join Burns in Latrobe this Thursday for a fundraiser, and the campaign says others will likely follow.

Last week, the president himself hailed the victory of Democrat Ted Deutch in Florida's 19th Congressional District as a successful referendum on health care. When asked by RCP how the White House reacted to Critz now distancing himself from that position, Robert Gibbs demurred.

"I have not spent a tremendous amount of time looking at the ads in this," the press secretary said. "But I do not doubt that there will be people in this season that will campaign on a whole host of policy positions. I think given where we've spent our time and our energy, know where we are, particularly on health care."

Whether Critz's positioning will prove successful remains to be seen. Two polls released Tuesday showed a competitive battle, with a GOP pollster showing Critz up by one, and a Democratic pollster showing Burns ahead by three.

Democrats have won every special election for the House since Obama took office, and Republicans are publicly cautious about their chances. In a meeting with reporters Tuesday, NRCC chair Pete Sessions stressed that it was a "Democratic district," and noted that the regularly-scheduled primary election coinciding with the special election is likely to attract more Democrats to the polls, since there is no major competition for the GOP nominations for Senate and governor in the state.

Still, Sessions said, "I'd sooner have our deck of cards on that one."