JOHNSTOWN, Pa. -- Almost four decades after John Murtha stood at the Rod & Wire Division gate and shook enough hands to loosen his arm, Mark Critz's stayed firmly in its socket, a testament to the possibility the 12th Congressional District could soon be in very different hands.
"Mr. Murtha told me once, when they're coming out, shake their hand and let them go, because they want to go home. When they're coming in, they'll want to stop and talk," said Mr. Critz, who was awarded the Democratic nomination to Congress after Mr. Murtha, his boss, died three months ago.
In those days, the Rod & Wire Division was owned by Bethlehem Steel. Thousands worked the mills here and Johnstown was the geographical center of the 12th District. A generation and multiple recessions and industrial shifts later, Johnstown is one end of a dumbbell-shaped district and Cambria is no longer the most populous county in the district.
Bethlehem Steel is now a ghost, and the Rod & Wire Division is now an independent company, a place where more than a thousand men -- invariably labor Democrats -- once walked through its gates. Fewer than 200 work here now. On the afternoon he pressed his case to succeed as congressman, perhaps 40 men filtered through to meet Mr. Critz. Some, like Ed Baldish, who shook hands and took the campaign fliers pressed into his hands, don't even live in the district.
The action was a hillside away, where Tim Burns, a Johnstown-born businessman who now lives on the other end of the dumbbell, in Washington County, was revving up a crowd of 100 true believers who had come out to cheer him and his latest celebrity endorser, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative heavyweight in the House.
Standing alongside Mr. Pence was Rob Gleason, the Pennsylvania Republican chairman who was on hand in 1974 when Mr. Murtha narrowly defeated Harry Fox, an aide to Republican Rep. John P. Saylor, who died in office. The special election to replace Mr. Saylor came months after President Richard M. Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox, setting off a chain reaction in national politics and riveting attention on the 12th District as a potential test of whether a president's declining fortunes would tip the district away from the GOP.
Mr. Pence talked on the district's opportunity "to send a deafening message to Washington, D.C." He reveled in the historic parallels.
"Frankly, the American people are weary of business as usual in Washington, D.C., in 2010 in many ways the same way they were in 1974," he said.
To that end, the Republicans have done all they could to tie Mr. Critz to both President Barack Obama, who lost the 12th District to John McCain two years ago, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, whose face is regularly superimposed on ads attacking Mr. Critz as a liberal Democrat.
Mr. Critz's campaign has made nary a mention of Mr. Obama. Instead, the campaign will have former President Bill Clinton, still popular in much of the district, stump for him this weekend.
From the day he first announced for the Democratic nomination to fill Mr. Murtha's unexpired term, Mr. Critz has openly touted himself as a conservative Democrat, more in the mold of Scoop Jackson than Joe Biden. Indeed, on the so-called "hot button" issues often used to sort left from right, Mr. Critz and Mr. Burns can seem indistinguishable.
Both oppose legal abortion and gun control, and each man says he would have voted against the administration's health care reform bill.
Much of the bickering has built around the two candidates' attempts to etch distinctions between them.
Mr. Burns, for instance, has pledged to go to Congress and press for the outright repeal of the health care reform bill, which he depicts as a government takeover of the health system and which included cuts to government payments to Medicare supplement programs such as Medicare Advantage.
In a district with a disproportionate number of retirees -- once reliably Democratic, blue collar, union retirees -- the health care bill and the Obama administration that ushered it in have been hard sells.
Repeatedly, Mr. Burns has challenged Mr. Critz to say he, too, would work to repeal the health care reform bill. Mr. Critz said he would not have supported the bill but he also says he would be unwilling to repeal it outright.
"While this bill represents significant progress in reforming our broken health care system, there were flaws that would've kept me from supporting it," Mr. Critz said. He called the bill too expensive and said it failed to include a fix to recoup payment cuts to physicians that treat Medicare beneficiaries.
"In Congress, I'll work to fix this bill because the issue is too important," Mr. Critz said.
Such subtleties have done little to fend off attacks from Mr. Burns and his allies, who paint Mr. Critz as a veritable puppet of Mr. Obama and Ms. Pelosi. In turn, Mr. Critz's camp incessantly refers to Mr. Burns as "out-of-touch millionaire Tim Burns," turning the Republican's past business successes into grounds for rejection.
The baiting has been exacerbated by a series of ads launched by both national parties. In addition to a combined spending of more than $1.7 million by the two candidates, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent more than $575,000 on ads attacking Mr. Burns, while the National Republican Congressional Committee has spent close to $500,000 going after Mr. Critz.
The DCCC opened with a television spot that accused Mr. Burns of selling his medical software firm to a company that "used a tax loophole which encourages sending American jobs overseas." The ad does not specifically state that the firm that purchased Mr. Burns' company, in fact, sent any jobs overseas, and Mr. Burns' supporters have argued that, once sold, he had no control over the firm.
The NRCC this week premiered an ad that attacks Mr. Critz as a liberal, and seeks to tie him to both the health care reform bill he says he opposed, as well as the federal "cap-and-trade" bill aimed at reducing carbon emissions from coal.
Mr. Burns insists that the Republican ads are fair, saying Mr. Critz worked for Mr. Murtha, who supported the cap-and-trade legislation and that, therefore, he played a role in its passage.
"Was he not part of the office that voted to pass cap-and-trade?" asked Mr. Burns. "He worked to pass the cap-and-trade bill."
Yet he rejects the same logic used by the Critz forces this week in their latest blast at the Burns agenda: that he would privatize Social Security. Their argument is predicated on Mr. Burns' endorsement and campaigning with such GOP luminaries as Mr. Pence.
Picketers appeared outside the joint appearance by Mr. Burns and Mr. Pence at the Richland Fire Hall. They carried signs denouncing Mr. Burns' presumed plans to privatize Social Security.
None of the picketers really wanted to explain himself, though, and one wanted to know why a reporter from Pittsburgh was on the scene until told the district crosses through Allegheny County.
Bill George, the colorful state AFL-CIO president who has been stumping for Mr. Critz here, acknowledged that both campaigns sometimes wander off the mark.
"It's hard today to talk to people," he said. "They're just so confused."
Dennis B. Roddy: email@example.com or 412-263-1965.