Gabrielle Giffords looms large in special Arizona election

June 11, 2012

TUCSON, Ariz. — Democrats are looking west to a House election in southwestern Arizona to break a nasty streak of bad headlines for the party — from its crushing loss in Wisconsin to weak employment numbers and the president’s ill-advised remarks about them.

Of course, this is no ordinary race: It’s a special election to replace former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. And the emotional resonance surrounding that fact may trump a host of perfectly good reasons on paper Republicans have high hopes here, among them a 26,000-person GOP voter registration edge and more than $1 million of outside money pouring in on behalf of a candidate who almost defeated Giffords in 2010.

Democratic candidate Ron Barber, a 66-year-old former Giffords staffer who was wounded in the January 2011 shooting spree that nearly killed Giffords and shocked the nation, is running to succeed her. For many people who live in Tucson, a big city with a small town feel, he is a deeply sympathetic figure who is indelibly connected to the tragedy and to Giffords.

Against that backdrop, partisan talking points and outside money don’t pack the same punch. Or so it appeared in the waning days of the campaign.

The dynamic was on full display over the weekend, as the former congresswoman, who stepped down earlier this year to focus on her recovery, made an emotional homecoming to Tucson to appear at a concert and get-out-the-vote rally for Barber. Standing alongside Barber, her hand clutching his, Giffords watched as her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, cast the race as a bookend to her political career.

“This is more than just an ordinary election. This is a little bit about closure. This is closure on Gabby’s career in Congress,” Kelly told supporters at the packed music hall, many of whom held their cell phone cameras aloft to capture a rare glimpse of the couple. “It wasn’t when she resigned in January. I really believe this coming Tuesday is.”

For some voters, the strong sentiments surrounding Giffords and Barber overshadow the GOP efforts to turn the race into a referendum on President Barack Obama, who polls show remains an unpopular figure throughout much of the state.

Standing outside a Safeway supermarket, just steps from where the shooting occurred, Tucson resident Tom Ralston nearly broke down in tears describing his support for Barber.

“He survived and is carrying on her philosophy,” Ralston said.

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