Salena Zito

Tim Burns, the endorsed Republican candidate in the 12th Congressional District, ran the first three days of his campaign out of this diner. It’s not exactly where you’d expect a man identified as an elitist millionaire by his political foes to set up shop.

“I grew up in Johnstown in half of a double house that my parents rented,” Burns says, forgoing the diner’s special for a club sandwich. “This is home to me.”

Buddy Gregg, 77, sitting at a long table with eight employees from his earth-moving company, says he will vote for Burns in May’s special election.

“He has the right background for me. He is not a politician, but a successful businessman,” Gregg says, adding that he is a lifelong Democrat.

Eighty miles northeast of Bentleyville is Johnstown, long known as Murtha’s home. From the diner, it is at the other end of a winding drive along the Lincoln Highway and through the Allegheny Mountains.

Mark Critz, Murtha’s district director, holds court at Capri’s Pizza and Pasta on Main Street. The former office he commanded is just down the street.

Critz won the nomination of state Democrats ten days earlier. He wanders up to the pizza buffet without a plate and grabs a plain slice before sitting down to chat about why he’s running.

“I felt an obligation to Murtha and the district to do this,” he says, as patrons walking out the door wish him good luck.

Last week a poll conducted in the district showed a statistical dead-heat between the two.

Isaac Wood, a University of Virginia political analyst, says the numbers show a measurable enthusiasm gap between Democrats and Republicans.

“While Critz has an immediate advantage as a logical Murtha heir … voters will assume Critz’s positions to be similar to that of his former boss and anyone looking for change will be unlikely to pull the lever for him,” he explains.

America will pay attention to this race, just as it did to the race for Ted Kennedy’s U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. A lot of focus will be given to the trends outlined in the poll, showing voters’ distaste for Washington and its perceived lack of attention to jobs and the economy.

Another focus will be on the people making the decision.

With Democrats holding a 130,000 registered-voter advantage over Republicans, and with no independent presence to speak of, it will be interesting to see how rural Western Pennsylvanians are framed this time.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.