Goodwill for Gabby Giffords abounds – but so do questions about the future

Some constituents are growing edgy about the uncertainty surrounding the political career of Gabby Giffords, and potential challengers are beginning to set eyes on the 2012 election.

Ida Mae Astute/ABC/AP
In this undated photo provided by ABC, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona and husband Mark Kelly are interviewed by Diane Sawyer on ABC's 20/20. When Sawyer asked if Giffords thinks she can return to Washington, the congresswoman haltingly replied, 'no, better.'

After a 10-month private struggle to recover from an assassination attempt, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) of Arizona is back in the limelight. Her face beams on the Nov. 21 cover of People magazine, she spoke her first public words on national TV Monday, and a book about her experience is out Tuesday.

Her return to the public eye holds special interest in the congresswoman’s Eighth Congressional District of Arizona. Here, goodwill for Gabby Giffords abounds – even as some constituents grow edgy about the uncertainty surrounding her political career, and potential challengers begin to set eyes on the 2012 election. 

Her television appearance "does create a sympathy vote, but I think people also have an interest in this very competitive and hostile Congress that we have and making sure that they have representation they can depend on," says Earl de Berge of the Behavior Research Center, a nonpartisan polling company in Phoenix. "I think the judgment is out until we see more about the strength of her recovery. It's very impressive what she's done so far."

Until now, few details had emerged on the progress Representative Giffords has made since being hit with a bullet in the head during the Jan. 8 shooting that killed six and wounded 12 others outside an Arizona supermarket.

“I feel sorry for her,” says John Condes, who lives in Giffords’s vast and diverse swing district. “But I wish she would say something about whether she’s able to go back to Congress.”

All along, her aides and loyal supporters have emphasized the need to allow ample time for her recovery. On television Monday, viewers were privy to home videos of the congresswoman’s painstaking and ongoing recovery in Houston, home of her retired astronaut husband, Mark Kelly.

Albeit with difficulty, Giffords is talking, walking, and continuing her rehabilitation while her staff handles constituent needs. When ABC’s Diane Sawyer asked if Giffords thinks she can return to Washington, the congresswoman haltingly replied, “no, better.”

“She wants to get better,” her husband offered.

On Tuesday, Giffords's Tucson office released a recording  in which she addresses her constituents. "I'm getting stronger. I'm getting better," she says in part. "I want to get back to work. Representing Arizona is my honor."
The message was recorded in Houston last week, according to her aides. It is posted on her Facebook page.

Mr. Kelly and Giffords further detail life after the shooting in their joint memoir, “Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope.” The book does not address the question of whether Giffords will run again next year, but May is the deadline to signal plans for reelection.

Given her traumatic experience, she deserves the opportunity to recover before making a decision, says Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D) of Arizona.

“I think she’s going to return to Congress; I really do,” he says.

If Giffords does decide to run, she will have hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund her campaign. According to the Federal Election Commission, she had $878,936 cash on hand through Sept. 30.

At the shopping center where suspect Jared Loughner opened fire on Giffords and constituents waiting to chat with her at a “Congress on Your Corner” event, the bustle of daily life has returned. Weekend shoppers come and go, stopping in for groceries, prescriptions, or a bite to eat.

“You do feel horrible about the situation that happened here and what happened to her,” says Jim Butler after a visit to Safeway. He and his wife, Chris, voted to return Giffords to a third term but now are somewhat frustrated about not knowing whether she will return home to Tucson and the US House of Representatives.

“She’s a big part of our lives here in the district, and we’d like to know what’s going on,” Mr. Butler says.

Although Giffords had kept mostly out of sight after the shooting, she made an appearance on the House floor Aug. 1 to vote on a compromise debt-ceiling bill.

Chris Butler would like some assurance that her congresswoman is capable of doing the job after such a serious challenge. “She needs to be able to think through the issues that are in front of her,” she says. “And to be honest, we just don’t know what her mental capacity is at this point.”

Constituent Brenda Herring has no problem with Giffords taking time to decide where her future lies. But she also feels, unlike other Giffords supporters, that it is appropriate for interested candidates to vie for her seat.

“If she wants to go on with her job as if she is perfectly healthy, barring this interruption in her life, but she feels that she’s made progress enough to continue on in what she’s doing, then I feel she would be up to the challenge,” Ms. Herring says. “That’s part of the job.”

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