JOHNSTOWN - Two races. On one day. And for the same seat.
That is what's in play Tuesday to determine who will replace the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha in the sprawling 12th Congressional District.
A special election will decide who will serve the remainder of Murtha's term. Meanwhile, the May primary contest features three Democratic and two Republican candidates running for party nominations and the right to face-off on the fall ballot for the seat's upcoming two-year term.
Add in the fact the 12th District is seen as a major "swing district" for Republicans and Democrats, and the contests have been the region's hottest contest on TV ads, in the news and online in recent weeks.
It's the first time in 37 years Murtha's name hasn't been on the ballot for the 12th District, which extends from the Johnstown area west into parts of Westmoreland, Indiana and Allegheny and Armstrong counties and also includes sections of Fayette, Greene and Washington counties.
Murtha died in February after complications arose from his gallbladder surgery in Virginia.
Battling to replace him are Democrat Mark Critz, Murtha's Director of economic development from Johnstown; Tim Burns, a Johnstown native who has become a successful Washington County businessman; and Libertarian Demo Agoris, 69.
Critz, 48, spent a decade working for Murtha before the congressman died. He stepped forward in March after Murtha's wife announced she had no plans to run for the seat and instead supported him.
In stops across the district, Critz doesn't hesitate to draw parallels between him and his former boss. Like Murtha, veterans' needs and constituent service will be top priorities, he told a small crowd at Donut Connection in downtown Johnstown a recent stop.
And in these tough economic times, "it's about jobs, jobs, jobs," he reminded supporters.
His website outlines goals to provide tax credits to small businesses that create new, high-paying jobs, while vowing to fight to end tax breaks for those who send jobs overseas.
Critz also believes the region's wealth of energy resources can also play a key role in its growth.
"We need to invest into these kinds of technologies," he said, citing clean coal technology, wind and others as examples.
Burns, 42, who has been touting his success as a businessman, is a native of Johnstown's Hornerstown section and has since settled in Washington County.
He grew a pharmaceutical technology business in his basement - and it eventually became a 400-employee corporation. In 2003, he sold it to NDCHealth Corp. for $110 million, the buyer told the Pittsburgh Business Times in May 2003.
"I built a business and know what it takes to create jobs, create a payroll - work in the real world," Burns said. "I understand what people are looking for that common-sense changes need to be made in Washington."
The admitted longshot Agoris, of Houston, Washington County, has run on a platform to reign in government and install term limits in Washington, D.C. He's also aiming to collect enough write-ins - nearly 3,200 - to land a spot on the fall ballot when the race tightens.
He's flown mostly under the radar in recent months as polls have focused on Critz and Burns and their national parties have dumped cash into the race, flooding the airwaves with attack ads.
Democrats have painted Burns as an out-of-touch millionaire who sold his company - and its hundreds of jobs, they say - for a quick profit.
Burns has attempted to portray Critz as U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi's puppet - a Washington insider cut from a California liberal's cloth.
Both said the accusations against them are flat-out wrong.
"I grew up in a lower middle class neighborhood delivered newspapers and went to college in the district," Burns said. "I started a business that wasn't an immediate success but learned from my mistakes and ultimately grew it to 400 employees."
Critz notes his roots are also firmly tied to the 12th District. He was born in Irwin, attended IUP and now calls Johnstown home.
"My opponent seems to be confused. He thinks he's running against Pelosi," Critz said of the ads. "That's not me. I'm more concerned about Washington, Pa., than I am about Washington, D.C.
"My main focus is about listening to people in this district - working to help them - and that's what I've been doing for years."
Critz, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, and Burns have similar views on issues that are often value-based "hot button" ones in the district.
Both men identify themselves as pro-life and Second Amendment supporters who said they'd fight to oppose legislation that would weaken the right to bear arms.
Both also said they would have opposed the Obama administration's health care plan, as written, but there's a divide from there, with Burns saying he'll work to repeal the measure and Critz saying he'd work to fix it.
Critz and Burns have also been crisscrossing the district nonstop in recent weeks, while spending has surged.
Records show the pair spent a combined $1.2 million in April alone, while their national parties have topped that - much of it in attack ads - for what is seen as a barometer race for the country's political direction.
But Burns and Critz aren't alone in their spending.
Enter: Bill Russell, the retired Army veteran who challenged Murtha two years ago for the seat.
On the GOP primary ballot against Burns, who handily topped him among district conferees for the party's special election nomination, Russell has raised more than $4.1 million since Jan. 1, 2009, and spent all but $250,000 by the end of April, federal election expense records state.
Russell has worn the snub as a badge of honor, saying the national Republican Party has lost its way and was looking for someone who could "write his own checks" over representing the common guy.
"I have covered this district from one end to the other, and I am fully aware of how the voters feel disenfranchised by their elected officials and the party elite," said Russell, who moved to Johnstown several years ago after decades in military service. "This campaign is about the people, not the entrenched establishment."
He, too, touts conservative values and has made national security a top priority.
Burns calls Russell's military service "admirable" but says his hometown roots and business experience set him apart.
"I grew up here was raised in the district. I understand what this district is about," Burns said, while listing recent endorsements from former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass. "I'm a good conservative candidate from this district."
Critz also faces primary challenges from U.S. Naval Academy graduate Ryan Bucchianeri of Monongahela and Ron Mackell Jr,. a Johnstown native and former local businessman and reporter who is now a Texas lawyer.
Mirror Staff Writer David Hurst is at 946-7457.