JOHNSTOWN, Pa. — Two years after a cadre of veterans helped sink the presidential campaign of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), they have found a new target in the old steel country of southwestern Pennsylvania: Democratic Rep. John P. Murtha.
In a fight that organizers say will feature rallies, TV ads and an aggressive Internet campaign, these activists are promising to make Murtha pay for his criticism of the Iraq war.
"I will do my best to 'Swift boat' John Murtha," retired Navy Capt. Larry Bailey said at a recent news conference here, invoking the 2004 campaign against Kerry that took its name from Vietnam War-era Navy vessels.
Few believe that Murtha, a Vietnam veteran who has represented his district since 1974, is in much danger of being driven from office.
But in the wake of Sen. Joe Lieberman's defeat in Connecticut's Democratic primary last week, Murtha's showdown with an increasingly vocal group of opponents provides more evidence of the prominent role the Iraq war is playing in this year's midterm campaign.
Unlike Lieberman, whose support for the war cost him Democratic voters, Murtha confronts a challenge sparked by his repeated calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Long among the most hawkish Democrats in Congress, the once media-shy Murtha has become a standard bearer for the party's antiwar wing since airing his criticism of the Bush administration's commitment in Iraq. And on street corners and town squares of this Rust Belt district, a small but committed corps of volunteers has joined Bailey, a North Carolina resident, in trying to make sure Murtha's constituents remember it -- and vote against him in November.
Murtha has brushed aside the attacks.
"It's ludicrous," he said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times last week. "What they are trying to do is distract from the [Iraq] issue.... There is no one who supports the military more than me."
Murtha's allies, led by a veterans group based in Richmond, Va., held a counter-rally in Johnstown that largely overshadowed Bailey's news conference. The pro-Murtha event featured former Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), who lost three limbs while serving in Vietnam.
The battle over Murtha's opposition to the Iraq war is unfolding in a place where support for the military has been an article of faith at least since the Civil War. The communities that form Murtha's district were among the first to send volunteers for the Union war effort -- a distinction proudly noted on a memorial in Johnstown's town square.
Today, 15.3% of the district's residents are veterans, slightly above the national average of 12.6%, according to the Almanac of American Politics.
And when a Pennsylvania National Guard battalion stationed outside Johnstown returned in June from a yearlong deployment in Iraq's Anbar province, some 1,000 well-wishers turned out to show their support, according to a unit spokesman.
For years, Murtha has been the embodiment of that spirit, many locals say.
A decorated Marine wounded in action, Murtha became the first Vietnam veteran elected to Congress. He backed the first Persian Gulf War and has been a longtime champion of robust defense spending.
Perhaps most critically for Johnstown, the congressman helped bring home defense-related jobs. Firms such as Lockheed Martin, DRS Technologies and Concurrent Technologies have opened facilities in the new industrial park on the hills above the city.
"What you find here is a tradition that goes way back with the military," said Robert Layo, president of the Greater Johnstown/Cambria County Chamber of Commerce. "His position has always been in line with that."
But Murtha, 74, established a new persona on Nov. 17, when he called a news conference to declare that, in his view, U.S. troops had become "the primary target of the insurgency" in Iraq and that it was "time to bring them home."
Murtha almost immediately became an antiwar icon -- a role he has embraced in the months since.
Now a regular on news talk shows, Murtha made headlines again in May when he said that Marines in Iraq had killed more than a dozen civilians "in cold blood." His comments caused one Marine under investigation in the Haditha killings to file a libel and invasion of privacy lawsuit against him last week.
With Congress on its summer break, Murtha is spending much of his time crisscrossing the country, headlining the nationwide Democratic push to take control of Congress in November's election. And he recently contributed an item on the war to the Huffington Post, a leading liberal website edited by Brentwood's Arianna Huffington.
Murtha's new identity has made him a prime target in a national Republican campaign to portray Democrats as defeatists. Some Pennsylvanians in Murtha's 12th Congressional District agree with that assessment.