Tim Burns, Mark Critz Battle as Pennsylvania House Special Election Goes Down to the Wire

Mark Critz, right, answers a question as Tim Burns listens during a debate Wednesday, May 5, 2010, in Johnstown, Pa.

The special election to fill the late-John Murtha's seat in western Pennsylvania has quickly become one of the hottest house races around. It's a dead heat between Republican businessman Tim Burns and former Murtha aide, Democrat Mark Critz.

The national parties have put a ton of money into the district, which covers the southwest corner of the state. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has spent roughly $650,000 and the National Republicans have spent a bit more at $700,000 - primarily on brutal television ads.

Celebrity politicians from both sides have made visits there as well, Vice President Joe Biden has been there for Critz and Bill Clinton is scheduled to be there this weekend. Burns has gotten the attention of Sarah Palin and Sean Hannity who have helped him raise money and Newt Gingrich has appeared with him.

Both candidates are conservative - according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, both oppose abortion rights and gun control and both say they would have voted against health care. Burns has pledged to press to repeal the health care bill if elected. The Washington Post reports that Burns doesn't attack Critz for working for Murtha, just saying that he worked for an office that supported health care.

The television ads are what's driving this race - they are constant and brutal.

Critz has an ad hitting Burns over jobs, a crucial issue in this area. In one ad, the announcer says "Mark Critz wants to get rid of tax breaks for companies that outsource jobs overseas. Tim Burns laid off his own workers in Pennsylvania to get tax breaks for outsourcing. Tim burns - out for himself, not us."

Burns hits Critz for working for Murtha, without ever mentioning the late congressman, but referencing Murtha's ethics scandals related to government contracts, congressional earmarks and campaign donations. The announcer in the Burns ad says: "Mark Critz -- a Washington bureaucrat bankrolled by Pelosi. Critz was investigated by the congressional ethics office..." The video shows the door of the House ethics office without ever showing Murtha.

Critz responds with an ad in his own words: "Tim, go ahead and attack me, but you've gone way too far when you attack someone who's no longer here to defend themselves." Critz ends that ad back on his jobs message: "I'm fighting to keep job here, Tim Burns outsourced jobs overseas."  (see more of Critz's ads here)

Burns also stars in his own ad, defining the race in simple terms. "This election is very simple: if you think we need more bailouts, more government, higher taxes and that Nancy Pelosi's values are your values, then Mark Critz is your candidate." Burns says he's the guy to send a "loud and clear message" to Washington calling for no more spending, no "job killing" cap and trade legislation and against the "destruction of the greatest health care system in the world." (see more of Burns' ads here)

If there weren't enough references to Nancy Pelosi in the Republican's advertisements, Burns is even playing up the unpopularity of the Democrats in congress in raising money on-line, "Taking Back Congress from Nancy Pelosi begins RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW," says his website's campaign donation form.

The president's popularity in this district will not be much help to the Democrat. Marc Ambinder points out that Mr. Obama's approval ratings in the district are under 40 percent. Mr. Obama lost the district by a very narrow margin in 2008. The district has a 2-1 Democratic advantage in registered voters.

Complicating this election is the fact that both candidates are on the ballot twice. Critz and Burns are not only running in the special election to fill the seat until the next Congress, but they are also running, with challengers, in the primary to be on the ballot for the November general. So they need voters to vote for them twice, once, to fill the seat for now and once, to be on the ballot in November.

Murtha died in February from complications from gall bladder surgery. He was first elected to Congress in 1974.

Robert Hendin is a CBS News White House producer. You can read more of his posts in Hotsheet here.
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    Robert Hendin is senior producer for "Face the Nation" and a CBS News senior political producer.