Voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional District may be choosing between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly in Tuesday's special election, but former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and President Barack Obama have become the real stars of the race.
The contest to replace Giffords, who resigned from the House in January to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head suffered during a murderous shooting spree a year earlier, is being closely watched by Democrats and Republicans alike as Democrats hope for a win after two weeks of brutal news. The release of a damaging jobs report showing less than expected gains and rising unemployment in May, on top of a major loss for the party in Wisconsin's recall election last week, did no good for Obama's chances as the parties mobilize for the presidential election.
Giffords was nearly killed when she was shot point-blank in the head during a Congress At Your Corner event outside a Tuscon supermarket in January 2011. Six people, including a 9-year-old girl, died in the attack by a lone, mentally unstable gunman, Jared Loughner.
Barber, the former director of Gifford's district office who was also wounded in the shooting, has been attacked by Republicans for his support of Obama and his policies. Kelly, a former Marine who nearly defeated Giffords in 2010, is running on a conservative platform calling for lower taxes and more domestic energy production to improve the economy. Throughout his campaign, he has made several jabs at the president, a strategy The Hill reports one Republican close to the Kelly campaign said has become known as the Barack O'Barber approach.
There is no Ron Barber, there's just Barack Obama, the operative, who was not named, told the publication.
While both sides have anticipated the race will be tight -- Arizona's 8th is a rare swing district in the state -- a survey released Monday by Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling showed that Barber currently has a 12-point lead over Kelly. However, there are approximately 26,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats in the district.
Although Giffords has made few public appearances since the shooting, she returned to Tuscon in recent days to campaign for Barber along with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly. On Saturday, Giffords -- who recovered miraculously from an injury that is nearly always fatal -- attended a concert with her husband, who spoke on behalf of his wife to praise Barber. On Sunday the couple also reportedly met with campaign volunteers to thank them for their work.
The Republican and Democratic National Committees, along with outside spending groups, have invested a combined $2.5 million into the battle to replace Giffords, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Whatever the outcome, Tuesday's victory will be short-lived. Both candidates have already said they will run for a full term in the fall, when voters will return to the polls in a redrawn district expected to be more favorable to Democrats.