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murtha2.1_500 U.S. Rep. John Murtha makes calls as his wife, Joyce, watches the election returns at his Johnsontown headquarters in 2006.
WASHINGTON -- Joyce Murtha, the wife of the late Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Johnstown, is seen by area Democrats as a formidable candidate to assume his congressional seat -- if she wants the job.
Mrs. Murtha would have the advantages of her close association with a popular congressman and name recognition, rendered even more crucial given the short campaign window of the special election.

Matt Mazonkey, a spokesman for Mr. Murtha's office, said

Thursday that he's received numerous calls and e-mails suggesting Mrs. Murtha as a candidate. But he added that Mrs. Murtha has been focused on making arrangements for her husband's funeral; visitation is Sunday and Monday with the funeral scheduled for Tuesday in Johnstown.

Formal politicking has been mostly postponed until after the funeral, but Democratic candidates have been making calls trying to shore up their base with party leaders who will choose the Democratic nominee.

Aside from Mrs. Murtha, the candidates most frequently mentioned include former state Treasurer Barbara Hafer, former Lt. Gov. Mark Singel, state Sen. John Wozniak of Johnstown and Westmoreland County Commissioner Tom Ceraso.

Mr. Ceraso, Mr. Singel and Ms. Hafer confirmed their interest in the seat Friday, while Mr. Wozniak, through a spokesman, declined comment until after the funeral.

But if Mrs. Murtha gets in, the Democratic field will likely clear for her.

"Certainly she would have an inside track if she wants it," Ms. Hafer said. "She would be the favorite, but if she decides not to run then I will submit my name."

The special election likely will be held May 18, the same day as the statewide primaries, in order to save money, Gov. Ed Rendell said this week.

Party leaders will pick the nominees for the special election, and Harrisburg Democrats likely will rely on party officials from the 10 counties included in the 12th District. The handful of county party chairs surveyed Thursday all said Mrs. Murtha would be the choice if she wants it.

One scenario would be for Mrs. Murtha to run just to serve out her husband's term, leaving candidates time to organize and build support for a November election.

"That would be a very good fit, and a very good approach and a fair way to do this," said Allegheny County Democratic Chairman Jim Burn.

Republicans William Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who lost to Mr. Murtha in 2008, and Tim Burns, a businessman from Eighty Four, have already declared their candidacies for the seat -- but others could emerge as well.

Mrs. Murtha would be a good choice against the GOP because she is already well known throughout the district and as a public figure throughout her husband's 36 years in Congress, Democratic leaders said.

Her name graces the Joyce Murtha Breast Care Center in Johnstown. Mrs. Murtha would often represent her husband at events in the district when he was unavailable and was active in charitable causes.

Longtime Fayette County Democratic Chairman Fred Lebder said he will tell Mrs. Murtha she should seek the seat, perhaps at a service for her husband.

"I think that we really have to have continuity," Mr. Lebder said.

Despite the recent chatter, Mrs. Murtha has never struck Cambria County Democratic Chairwoman Helen Whiteford as a contender for political office one day.

"She's done a lot on her own, but she never stole the show," Ms. Whiteford said. "I don't know that she would even consider it."

There is precedent for a widow taking over when a congressman dies in office. According to the House of Representatives' website, 46 widows -- or one-fifth of the women who have ever served in Congress -- have succeeded their husbands as House members or senators.

Most of those women have only served out the unexpired term, but not always. Rep. Mary Bono Mack, R-Calif., has been in Congress since 1998, when her husband Rep. Sonny Bono died.

Daniel Malloy: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 202-445-9980. Follow him on Twitter at PG_in_DC

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