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Critz, Burns Battle For Murtha Seat

Potential national implications will be gleaned from the vote tally today in the special election for Pennsylvania's 12th district, but ultimately voters in the district are choosing between a Democrat who's ran as a torch carrier of a powerful congressional insider or a Republican who promises to stand up against the majority party in Congress.

The late John Murtha had won the southwestern Pennsylvania district fairly easily for the past 36 years. He wielded an influential gavel as chairman of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee and steered millions of dollars in government spending to his district. However, it's unclear whether a Democrat with a different name running in a Republican-favored year will have the same electoral fortune.

In 2008, despite a two-to-one Democratic registration advantage and a strong environment for Democrats in the state and nationwide, John McCain narrowly carried the district. Meanwhile, Murtha won re-election with 58 percent.

Today, Mark Critz, a longtime staffer in Murtha's district office, is up against businessman Tim Burns. Both national parties and outside interest groups have spent heavily on the race -- Republicans see an opportunity to get a head start on winning back the House in November, while Democrats hope to save one in their effort to hold the majority.

Republicans believe the vote will come down to national issues like health care reform, and that voters will cast their ballot in protest to the party in power.

"This is a seat where Democrats hold a two-to-one registration advantage, yet the race is competitive and coming down to the wire," said Tory Mazzola, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "The fact that we have a strong GOP candidate, Tim Burns -- committed to job creation and repealing ObamaCare -- combined with a favorable Republican environment has turned this historically Democratic seat into a swing district."

One of the factors on the side of Democrats is the competitive Senate primary between Democrats Arlen Specter and Joe Sestak. While it's been uncomfortable for some party leaders in Washington, the highly publicized intraparty battle could actually help push Critz voters to the polls -- a welcome off-shoot for the party.

For his part, Critz is running as "pro-life, pro-gun" and someone who "will always put Pennsylvania first," as he says in a recent TV ad. He's framed his candidacy as a continuation of the Murtha legacy with independence from the national party on certain issues, particularly health care reform. He also sought to make jobs the focus of the race.

Meanwhile, Burns has characterized the race as a referendum on Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democrats' agenda. If "Nancy Pelosi's values are your values, then Mark Critz is your candidate," Burns says in a recent TV spot, adding that a vote for him will "send a loud and clear message to Washington."

A Burns victory would give the GOP its second major special election win this year, following that of Scott Brown in Massachusetts's special Senate election in January. A third could come at the end of the week in the special election for Hawaii's 1st district.

In 1994, the last time Republicans won back control of Congress, the party picked up two springtime special elections in Oklahoma and Kentucky. In February 1974, Murtha's special election win set off a string of post-Watergate victories for Democrats in what turned out to be a strong year for the party.

A win Tuesday could be characterized as a similar sign of things to come, but Democrats set the bar high for the GOP, pointing to the fact that the 12th district was the only one in the country to vote for McCain after supporting John Kerry in 2004. Expecting a close race, they say the GOP will need to win big for Republican leaders to continue peddling the possibility of a '94-esque storm.