Arizona special election: About Gabrielle Giffords or President Obama?

The special election Tuesday to fill the House seat vacated by shooting victim Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is overshadowed by the memory of the tragedy, but the Republican has tried to make it about Obama's policies.

Matt York/AP/File
Then-Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona tours the Gabrielle Giffords Family Assistance Center with staff member Ron Barber in Tucson, Ariz., in this file photo from earlier this year.

In a closely-watched race, Arizona voters on Tuesday will choose a candidate to complete the remainder of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords’s term in Congress nearly 18 months after a gunshot wound to the head, which forced her to resign in January.

The names on the ballot will be Ron Barber as the Democrat and Jesse Kelly as the Republican. But perhaps the two more important names in the race are those of Giffords and President Obama – the former still invoking significant goodwill here, the latter far less so.

Mr. Barber is a former top aide of Ms. Giffords and is her hand-picked successor and was also injured in the January 2011 Tucson shooting that killed six people and injured 13 at the congresswoman’s meet-and-greet event outside a grocery store. In the final hours leading to the special election, Giffords, who rarely appears in public, stumped for Barber at a weekend get-out-the-vote concert in Tucson.

Mr. Kelly pushed Giffords to the brink in their 2010 election, losing by only 4,000 votes in the Eighth Congressional District – a swing district where Republicans hold a 26,000-voter advantage over Democrats. Criticized for using inflammatory campaign stunts in 2010, he has this time focused his fire on Mr. Obama.

The tactic is a good one, polling of the district suggests. According to Public Policy Polling of Raleigh, N.C., 44 percent of respondents approved of the president while 50 percent disapproved.

But the same poll shows Kelly well behind, 53 percent to 41 percent.

“Democrats are likely to win this race comfortably tomorrow,” Dean Debnam, president of the polling firm, which is affiliated with the Democratic Party, said in a news release.

But he adds: “The unusual circumstances of the contest make its relevance to any other contest later this year pretty limited."

The Giffords shooting is that unusual circumstance. 

“People in general have a lot of sympathy for Giffords,” says Barbara Norrander, a political scientist at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

The seat will be up for grabs again in November in a slightly reconfigured district. 

Kelly, a 30-year-old construction project manager and former Marine linked with the tea party, has stayed on his message of job creation, reduced taxes, and lower gas prices. 

“He’s 100 percent pro-life, he’s for marriage between a man and a woman, he’s for lower taxes and he wants to help businesses get back to being able to hire people,” says supporter Roslyn Bayard.

The 66-year-old Barber, who worked as Giffords’s district director, has pledged to fight for the preservation of Social Security, Medicare, and other social safety programs, as well as continue the centrist policies of his former boss.

For Larry Oyen, a Republican turned Democrat who has volunteered on Barber’s campaign, Barber “believes the same things I do: helping the middle class and the lower-class people.”

But, Mr. Oyen acknowledges, his vote for Barber is also partly a vote for Giffords.  

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