JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- The contest to succeed the late John P. Murtha drew nearer to a close on Sunday as the Democratic nominee brought in a former president and the Republican candidate sprinted across the district knocking on doors and, when possible, his opponent.
Former President Bill Clinton, who remains deeply popular in this steel-and-coal district, capped off an afternoon rally at the Frank J. Pasquerilla Convention Center where he touted Democrat Mark Critz as the logical heir to the Murtha legacy.
"This guy will make good things happen," Mr. Clinton said of Mr. Critz. "He knows how to do it. He won't need on-the-job training."
Mr. Critz, former district director for Mr. Murtha, faces a tight race to succeed his late boss. Republican nominee Tim Burns has mounted a strong bid to take over the seat, riding high on a wave of anti-Washington backlash among the traditionally Democratic voters here. As Mr. Critz trumpeted his longtime connections to the late Mr. Murtha, Mr. Burns promoted himself as a political outsider.
The former president alluded to the electorate's angry mood. "Think about decisions you made when you were really mad," Mr. Clinton told the audience. "It's about an 80 percent chance you made a mistake." He spoke of Mr. Critz's "practical, common-sense Democratic message."
As Mr. Clinton stumped here, the Republican nominee hit the pavement in northern Allegheny County, fired at clay pigeons on a skeet range in Armstrong, and turned rhetorical fire on both Mr. Critz and Mr. Clinton.
"People are tired of Washington as usual. They're tired of the politicians of the past," Mr. Burns said.
As he spoke, his campaign issued one of what has been a stream of releases demanding to know why Mr. Critz's campaign wasn't paying this cash-strapped town for any security costs of Mr. Clinton's campaign visit.
"Mark Critz should do right by Johnstown taxpayers and pay for his rally in support of government run health care," said Kent Gates, a Burns campaign spokesman. "However, given Critz's support for $500 billion in new Obamacare taxes, it's clear that struggling taxpayers are the least of his concern."
That final blast, accusing Mr. Critz of favoring the federal health care reform bill, capped off a campaign in which each side accused the other of flat out lies.
"Mark Critz opposed the health care bill and moving forward he will work to improve it," said Holly Shulman, spokeswoman for Mr. Critz. "The Burns campaign has been using these false attacks to distract from Burns' reckless agenda to ship jobs overseas, gamble Social Security on Wall Street and privatize Medicare."
Mr. Burns has repeatedly said he has no plans to ship jobs overseas and opposes privatizing any of the current programs serving senior citizens. In the final two weeks, the Critz forces have accused him of wanting to privatize Social Security.
Mr. Critz has said throughout the campaign that he would not have voted for the health care reform bill. In turn, his side has accused Mr. Burns of favoring a 23 percent national sales tax, something Mr. Burns has emphatically insisted he does not advocate.
The special election to fill the remaining eight months of Mr. Murtha's term has become a proxy fight between the two national parties, which will have poured an estimated $1 million each into advertising come Tuesday's vote. The special congressional election is being held at the same time as the party primaries in which both candidates face challengers for the nomination for a full term in the November election.
The relentless cycle of spin has left some voters confused, others disillusioned. One of them is Tony McMonagle, a retired real estate agent from Westmont.
He came out to hear Mr. Clinton. What he's heard so far, he said, is a din of attack ads.
"I think both sides got a little heavier on the whacking of the other party than they needed to," he said. "I want to know what they're going to do for this district."
Some of the crowd of roughly 1,000 at the convention center here came more out of curiosity than agreement.
Matt Litzinger, a student from Indiana University of Pennsylvania -- alma mater of both congressional candidates -- sported a Burns for Congress button and stood in the back of the hall.
"I just came out to see what Clinton and Critz have to say," he said. "I don't see how it all adds up."
Dennis B. Roddy: email@example.com or 412-263-1965. First Published May 17, 2010 4:00 AM