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GOP Candidate Running to Succeed Murtha Challenges Rival to Coal Mine Debate

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In this April 2, 2010 photo, Republican party candidate Tim Burns greets people attending a Good Friday fish fry while on a campaign stop in New Germany, Pa. Burns is running for the Republican nomination for the congressional seat vacated by the death of longtime congressman John Murtha. (AP)

In a part of the country where coal reigns supreme and jobs are on the hearts and minds of most, the Republican candidate vying to succeed the late Rep. John Murtha wants to debate his special election opponent in front of an audience he thinks will care most -- coal miners. 

Republican candidate Tim Burns said he wants miners to know where he and Democratic opponent Mark Critz stand, alleging Critz is only concerned with regulating the coal industry out of business.

"Pennsylvania's energy resources are vital to putting us back to work. I can think of no better venue than a debate in the district that focuses on energy and the role of coal in America's future," Burns said.

But a Critz campaign official told Fox News his candidate has received no such challenge.

"To their alleged debate challenge perhaps they should contact the people they want to challenge. This is just another sign Burns is not serious," said Mike Mikus, Critz's campaign manager.

The majority of Pennsylvania's coal resources -- as well as two of the world's largest coal mines -- are located in the oddly contorted 12th District, which hopscotches across nine southwestern Pennsylvania counties, eight of which are shared with other districts. 

Once a booming center of coal, steel and iron production, this area is attempting to diversify in order to escape economic distress and industrial loss. 

In a recent poll by Susquehanna Polling Research, 43 percent of Pennsylvanians say the economy/jobs/unemployment are the No. 1 issue in the upcoming election on May 18.

The congressional district held by Democrat Murtha for the past 36 years is a conservative blue-collar district that hadn't been expected to be in play until the untimely death of the Capitol Hill leader, who easily won re-election in 2008 by a 58 to 42 percent margin. 

A separate poll from last month conducted by Susquehanna Polling shows Critz holding a tenuous 36-31 percent lead over Republican nominee Tim Burns with a whopping 31 percent of likely voters still undecided. The margin of error is 4.9 percent.

Two-thirds of undecideds in the Critz-Burns race are Democrats, giving Critz a potential advantage, but the district's purple complexion -- Arizona Sen. John McCain carried the district in the 2008 presidential race and many of the undecideds voted split their ticket between McCain and Murtha in the last election -- could easily turn Pennsylvania's 12th into another "Virginia" or "Massachusetts," a.k.a. a possible steal for Republicans.

The district currently gives President Obama a 41 percent job approval rating while 50 percent said they support the principles of the Tea Party movement, according to last month's poll.

Burns is floating a trial balloon by touting Pennsylvania coal as the answer to America's energy needs. He has released a petition calling for the Environmental Protection Agency to stop legislating through regulation, and end its war on coal.

"Obama and the EPA have declared war on coal through a number of environmentalist driven regulations that are costing jobs. This is a huge issue for the district that means real jobs," he said.

In light of the recent mining tragedy in Montcoal, W.Va., where 29 miners died, Congress is planning to take a closer look at whether tougher regulations can prevent another disaster. 

The Senate plans to explore weaknesses in federal mine safety laws when it convenes the first of a series of hearings this month and the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee will meet April 27 to look at whether the system encourages mine operators to challenge safety violations and delay penalties.

Burns argued that there is a risk to mining, but miners he spoke to during a recent visit say they "are not afraid to go into these mines.  

"Yeah, there is some risk, but they say there is just as much risk as them driving their car to the mine as going underground," Burns said. "I think it's extremely important to keep our miners safe. And what we need to do is use common sense when looking at these mining regulations, not more regulations."

Mikus, who wouldn't commit his candidate to an invitation he's never received, said the call for debate and petition are just campaign tricks by the trailing Burns' team.

"They are more concerned with playing political games than providing Western Pennsylvania with jobs," he said.