U.S. congressional candidates have spirited exchange

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Republicans running in two congressional races on the outskirts of Pittsburgh hammered Obama administration policies at a forum in Greensburg Thursday, while their Democratic opponents called for more bipartisanship in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, and fellow Republican Keith Rothfus, who is challenging in the 12th District, repeatedly criticized Mr. Obama's health care legislation and regulatory policies affecting the coal industry. Mr. Rothfus was particularly harsh on the president, showing he won't take a moderate path to the Nov. 6 election.

"I'm concerned about the direction Mr. Obama and his big government advocates are taking this country," the Sewickley attorney told about 100 people at a breakfast hosted by the Westmoreland County Chamber of Commerce. "Instead of growing jobs he's growing government. With a bias towards government that he has, is it any wonder he said you didn't build your business?"

His Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Mark Critz of Johnstown, showed his conservative stripes as well, noting he has fought Environmental Protection Agency policies on coal production, supports natural gas exploration and would have voted against the full "Obamacare" bill, even if he supports its planks extending coverage for young people, those with preexisting conditions or for prescription drug coverage.

"This is where we get to the core of why Congress is looked upon so poorly," said Mr. Critz, who first won a 2010 special election to replace his late boss, John Murtha. "We've got to work this out together. We have to come to the table with not a Democratic or Republican solution, but a solution that's best for our country. An American solution. That's what I support."

Mr. Murphy's 18th District opponent Larry Maggi, a Washington County commissioner, mirrored Critz's remarks. The foundation of the Democrat's campaign is built upon his county's embrace of the Marcellus Shale boom, which triggered the third-most job growth in any county nationwide. Mr. Maggi mentioned that economic success in six of his 10 answers on issues ranging from regulatory policies to transportation needs.

The refrain seemed to irk Mr. Murphy -- another supporter of the energy industry -- who told the crowd "I thought we'd get some idea of what my opponent stands for, and I still have no idea."

Afterward Mr. Maggi repeated his calls for boosting jobs via the energy sector and Washington County's attempts to cut government regulation and spending. "I'm not sure exactly what he did not understand about that, but we can sit there and pontificate forever. [Congress] has been pontificating for two years about these problems, and nothing's done," the former Marine and state trooper said.

Bashing the White House makes good political sense for the Republican candidates. Their new districts, designed by GOP mapmakers, both voted handily for John McCain over Mr. Obama, and the new 12th District was stuffed with new Republican voters (only Luzerne County Republican U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta's 11th District got a bigger GOP boost).

"The president would rather be on 'The View' than meet with [Israeli Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu, who is deeply concerned about the existence of his country and the annihilation and holocaust of his people," Mr. Murphy said, repeating a recent GOP talking point on the president.

His opponent, Mr. Maggi, would not say if he was voting for Mr. Obama, but Mr. Critz signaled he would. While the 12th District incumbent said he was focused on Western Pennsylvania and not the presidential election, he said "I'm a Democrat and I support the Democratic ticket."

(At the same time those at the forum were drinking their coffee and hearing those words, the Rothfus campaign was launching a new attack ad on Mr. Critz portraying him as a bobble-headed "yes-man" for the White House. Mr. Critz's campaign responded he is "one of the most independent members of Congress" and the ad contained "blatant falsehoods.")

Fights over job outsourcing and business with China have been another debate point in the 12th District race, and when asked about free trade agreements with China and other countries, Mr. Rothfus said "we need trade agreements because most the world has trade agreements. If we don't, others will fill that vacuum."

He also took another shot at Mr. Obama. "We need a new president, not someone who has bowed to China the last four years."

Mr. Critz argued that he tried to get a bill on Chinese currency manipulation (which depresses the cost of Chinese goods) to the House floor this session but it was blocked by GOP leadership.

China "can sell products in this country for less than we can buy the materials. There's no way to compete. We have to be strong in this debate and go after them," Mr. Critz said.

Mr. Murphy noted his similar efforts to crack down on China's currency moves and dumping of cheap steel. "Free trade is fair trade, and you have to have all these things working together," he said.

"In southwestern Pennsylvania and especially Washington County we can use our newfound energy resources we have," said Mr. Maggi. "Because we do have companies from overseas coming to southwestern Pennsylvania to set up, so that's important to continue to promote that."

region - neigh_washington - electionsmunicipal - neigh_westmoreland

Tim McNulty: tmcnulty@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1581. Follow the Early Returns blog at earlyreturns.sites.post-gazette.com or on Twitter at @EarlyReturns. First Published September 28, 2012 4:00 AM


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