JOHNSTOWN – After a fierce and widely-watched whirlwind of a campaign, a protégé of the late U.S. Rep. John P. Murtha won the special election for his seat.

In four decades in office Murtha almost single-handedly transformed the 19th century steel-and-coal industrial base of southwestern Pennsylvania into a region dominated by hospitals and high-tech defense contracting. And in the end, enough voters remembered that legacy to elect Mark Critz, the longtime Murtha aide who helped make much of it happen.

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Critz, 48, of Johnstown, who worked as district manager for Murtha's field office, was outpolling Republican challenger Tim Burns, 42, by nearly a 3 to 2 ratio with 92 percent of the vote counted. Outside the polls at a Richland Township church, retired schoolteacher and lifelong Democrat Fred Mikula, 64, said he voted for Critz because he was "best one to continue" what Murtha had done for the district.

But Mikula and his wife Janice, who said she also supported Critz, lamented the relentless negativity in both campaigns, which spent roughly $2 million in all.

"They might as well have put Nancy Pelosi on that cross," he said, gesturing at the Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church steeple.

Murtha's death in February, from complications after gall- bladder surgery, left Republicans hoping they could take the seat he had controlled since the 1970s.

Critz plugged his role in having helped execute the Murtha "magic," but also promoted himself as an independent voice in Washington for this socially conservative district. He said he opposed the controversial health care overhaul that President Obama signed in March.

Burns, an entrepreneur from Washington County who organized one of the district's first tea party rallies, ran against the "liberal agenda" of Obama and House Speaker Pelosi, and linked Critz to "runaway spending" in Washington.

But Republicans were unable to win a significant Democratic crossover vote in a pro-life, pro-gun district, thanks in part to voters such as David Gehlman.

"Murtha turned us from a steel rust belt to a center of defense contracting," said Gehlman, 44, who owns several small businesses, while rattling off a list of defense contractors and federal installations lured here by Murtha. "Critz was Murtha's ground guy. Maybe he doesn't have the clout, but he's best one to continue his legacy."

Critz will finish out Murtha's term, serving till January. But Critz and Burns, in an odd twist, also bested opponents on Tuesday in party primaries - and will face each other again in November for a full two-year term.

Despite a 2-to-1 Democratic registration edge in the district, the two had run neck-and-neck in polls amid anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiment felt even in a city where public dollars have delivered jobs for decades.

Republican Mike Firm, 50, may well owe his job with defense contractor DRS Technologies to Murtha, who in his role as chairman of the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee was equally derided and praised as the "King of Pork."

But Firm said that didn't sway him from voting for Burns. "I believe in conservative values," he said outside the John Murtha Neuroscience and Pain Institute. "I don't want government intruding into my life."

He added, "I don't like health care rammed down our throats."

Even Gehlman, who is a Cambria County Democratic committeeman, said he's worried about what the health care law will mean for his seasonal ice cream stand, where he employs a few dozen teenagers and he fears he will have to pony up for health insurance.

But Republicans were careful at every turn not to assail Murtha's memory. "Murtha has an indelible mark here and it will be here for generations," said Ann Wilson, vice chairman of the Cambria County Republican Committee and deputy mayor of Johnstown. For all the pork he sent home, Murtha failed to uplift much of inner-city Johnstown, where Wilson and others are trying to keep the city out of bankruptcy and unemployment tops 10 percent.

With one defense contractor already pulling up stakes, Wilson said she and others fear the clock is ticking on contracts secured by Murtha.

"We're worried about what will happen when those contracts expire," said Wilson, steering her minivan through the depressed corridors of the city, past boarded up store fronts and sagging houses and the sparkling Murtha Cancer Center. "Jack Murtha has big shoes to fill."

Contact staff writer Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.