Former President Bill Clinton returned to the 12th Congressional District to rally voters for U.S. Rep. Mark Critz, D-Johnstown, in a speech filled with local references, defenses of Medicare and critiques of his Republican opponent Keith Rothfus and party standard bearer Mitt Romney.
Mr. Clinton spent much of his 18-minute address in a tiny basement of a union hall in downtown Beaver going over reimbursement cuts to health providers in the federal health care overhaul, noting that the county has some of the highest Medicare Advantage enrollment in the entire nation.
Republican criticisms that Democrats favor cutting $716 billion from Medicare -- as Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney repeated Wednesday in his debate with President Barack Obama -- are "a hoax, pure and simple," Mr. Clinton said to the packed room. "What you need to do is stand up and say, I got it, I'm not going to be fooled. I'm for Mark Critz for Congress and I'm not going to be sucked into that."
The former president -- who also had a lecture later in the night at Heinz Hall -- began his talk by saying "I love this part of Pennsylvania" since it had supported him in his presidential runs and his wife in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. He got his first big cheers by noting Marcellus Shale drilling, and a proposed $1 billion ethane cracker plant nearby, is helping turn around the region's economy.
"To grow an economy you've got to start with your strengths and your blessings. You've got the natural gas now and you're going to get a new cracking plant here because you're building on your blessings. That's what we have to do everywhere in America and there's not a Democratic or Republican way to do that," he said.
"Mark Critz wakes up every day and he doesn't think about what is the partisan way I can get this done to make somebody look bad. ... He's just trying to help the people of this district. That's what we need more of in America. We got enough of that other stuff in Washington; we don't need any more of that."
What Mr. Clinton did not mention at any point was the president, which also showed some political acumen about the district. It voted for John McCain over Mr. Obama in 2008 and even Democratic polls show the incumbent is losing there this fall. Outside spending in the 12th District race has made it the third-most expensive congressional race in the country, according to a Politico study this week, and much of the GOP messaging has tried to tie Mr. Critz to the president.
Mr. Clinton, however, is remarkably popular in the district -- which underlies why the Critz campaign scored him for the rally -- so Mr. Rothfus pivoted right to the current Democrat in the White House when asked in advance Wednesday about the former president's visit.
"Bill Clinton's not on the ballot. Barack Obama's on the ballot," Mr. Rothfus said after a tour of a specialty steelmaker in Beaver Falls.
About two dozen Republican and Tea Party protesters rallied outside the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 712.
Beaver County is key to the new 12th District, which goes from there to the North Hills of Pittsburgh, through parts of Westmoreland and Mr. Critz's base in Somerset and Cambria counties. Beaver County is new to Mr. Critz, and outgoing Democratic congressman Jason Altmire trounced Mr. Rothfus there in 2010 by 16 percentage points.
Republican mapmakers melded the old 12th District with Mr. Altmire's 4th District starting this year, boosting its GOP voters, but Mr. Clinton has long had ties to it, and particularly late congressman John Murtha, Mr. Critz's former boss.
Mr. Clinton took on Mr. Romney and Mr. Critz's Republican challenger with an old-time defense of the Democratic take on government.
"You know enough people who depend upon Medicare and Medicaid, who needed those unemployment benefits when the worst of this economy hit, to know that the private economy alone cannot hold us together. And this is really an election on whether you think we're all in this together or you're on your own is a better policy," he said.
Tim McNulty: email@example.com or 412-263-1581. First Published October 5, 2012 4:00 AM