Salena Zito

JOHNSTOWN – Last summer Marc Roberge walked onstage at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park to perform in front of the largest crowd he and his popular rock band, O.A.R., had faced.

In front of 40,000 mostly Western Pennsylvanians who came out for a night of mediocre baseball followed by fireworks and music, Roberge lost his voice.

“The first thought that raced through my mind was, ‘I want to give everyone their money back,’ ” he recalls.

A blood vessel had broken in his vocal cords. Yet, he says, “What could have been a negative became a turning point in my life.”

People in the stadium rose to give Roberge and his band a standing ovation. It continued throughout the evening, as the band played acoustically while a Pirates team doctor treated him.

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“I felt like I was part of the community,” he says, still emotional about that night. “When I came back to the stage … I was not only surprised that the entire park was still packed with people, I was blown away by the response.”

Leading up to the 2008 presidential election, Western Pennsylvanians were cast far differently by the media after candidate Barack Obama at a San Francisco fundraiser declared, "It's not surprising, then, that they get bitter, and they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren't like them."

Even local politicians alluded to a certain ignorance or to redneck tendencies in the region.

Roberge has a very different view. The Western Pennsylvania that he and his band experienced “was America … and I have to say it felt very good.”

Once again Western Pennsylvania will be under the national microscope as the press, political strategists and Washington insiders watch the race to replace the late U.S. Rep. Jack Murtha.

Will they focus on the people and how they reflect American political sentiment? Or will they again dismiss them as rednecks, not sophisticated enough to understand the impact of their vote?

Two left turns off exit 31 from Interstate 70 heading east, the Carlton Diner sits next to the Carlton Motel in Bentleyville. Step inside, and you’re back in the 1960s: Large booths in brown leather and chrome stretch comfortably across the room, oversized desserts twirl in a curio-like cooler, and the daily special is an event called “The Slop,” a mixture of every conceivable breakfast item in one dish.

“It’s very popular,” says a patron, attempting to convince a newcomer.

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.