(CBS News) Ostensibly, the special election taking place in Arizona's 8th district today is a decision between Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly.
But in reality, the election is about a lot more: Feelings about President Obama in this Republican-leaning Southern Arizona district, Democrats' chances of taking over the House next year, and, most notably, the legacy of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who
Roughly one year earlier, Giffords was one of 19 people shot at a "Congress at your corner" event that she was hosting in a Safeway parking lot in Tucson. Six people died in the attack, in which Giffords was shot in the head; she left Congress to concentrate on her recovery, setting up today's special election to serve out the rest of her term.
Among those shot in the attack was the 66-year-old Barber, who at the time was a Giffords aide; his campaign has argued that he will continue Giffords' work in Congress, an argument amplified by Giffords
Giffords said little at the get-out-the-vote rally and concert, offering only a brief thank you, but her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly, told supporters the election was "a little bit about closure."
"This is closure on Gabby's career in Congress," he said. "It wasn't when she resigned in January."
Giffords' decision to campaign for Barber "makes a huge difference because of her enormous popularity and her bravery in dealing with the assassination event and all she has meant to southern Arizona," said Chip Scutari, the Republican half of bipartisan Arizona public relations firm Scutari and Cieslak, who predicts it will help drive up turnout for Barber today.
In part because of Barber's close ties to Giffords, Republicans have sought to turn the race into a referendum on Mr. Obama. It's a strategy that makes sense in a district in which registered Republicans outnumber registered Democrats by more than 25,000 people, according to the Arizona Secretary of State's office. Giffords' victory over Jesse Kelly in the 2010 election was one of the narrowest in the nation, and it was a "testament to Gabby's skill and personality that she was able to win in a leaning-Republican district," said Arizona-based Democratic political consultant Barry Dill.
The National Republican Congressional Committee, in a television ad supporting Kelly, deemed a vote for Barber a "rubber stamp" for "failed Obama policies that hurt Arizona."
Wes Gullett, a Republican political consultant in Arizona, said that he believed Barber "hurt himself immeasurably" when he refused to say during a May debate whether he would vote for the president. (Barber's campaign later released a statement saying that he would vote for the president, though he has raised questions about the federal health care law that is his signature first-term accomplishment.) Gullett argued that Barber's attempts to distance himself from Mr. Obama reflect a lack of finesse that damaged his prospects.
"Ron Barber's not Gabby Giffords," he said, adding that Barber "doesn't have the same charm and charisma that Gabby Giffords had."
But while he has largely not talked about the shooting during the campaign, Barber is undeniably linked to Giffords in the minds of voters in the district. That reality has prompted Kelly, a 30-year-old Iraq war veteran, to use less negative rhetoric in this race than he did in his 2010 battle against Giffords. While both candidates in the race have been relatively civil, the same cannot be said of the outside groups operating on their behalf. Such groups have spent more than $2 million on the race, according to the Associated Press, GOP-linked outside groups outspent their Democratic counterparts $1.3 million to $900,000. The outside spending nearly offset Barber's $500,000 fundraising advantage over Kelly.
One ad from a Democrat-linked super PAC spotlighted a 2010 comment from Kelly in which he called Giffords a "hero of nothing." Kelly made the comment before the attack on Giffords, and Barber distanced himself from the ad.*
"The candidate campaigns have been fair to excellent," said Dill. "The independent expenditures have been pretty rotten."
With election watchers expecting the race to come down to the votes of the district's 124,000 independent voters, Kelly has largely abandoned his attacks on Social Security and Medicare, which he once derided as Ponzi schemes. Barber, who like Giffords has largely taken moderate positions, has sought to spotlight such comments to portray Kelly as a Tea Party-linked extremist. Kelly has tried to offset the effort in an ad in which he promises seniors he will make sure their benefits are protected.
For Democrats, a victory here could provide a glimmer of good news following their disappointing loss in the Wisconsin recall election. Democrats need to win 25 seats to take over the House in November, and hanging onto Giffords' seat would provide a psychological boost - though it's important to note that the district is set to change after the special election as a result of the 2010 census. Kelly plans to compete in the redrawn district no matter what happens on Tuesday; the primary is scheduled for Aug. 28 ahead of the November general election.
"This is a temporary victory for whoever wins, and then in November they do it all over again in the new redistricted version," said Scutari.
While most polls have shown a tight race, a survey from Democratic-leaning automated pollster Public Policy Polling out Monday found Barber leading Kelly 53 percent to 41 percent, with Kelly viewed negatively by 59 percent of voters in the district - a sign that the attacks on Kelly over his positions on entitlement programs may have moved the needle toward Barber among independent and elderly voters. More than half of those who will vote in the election have already cast early ballots by mail, however, which diminishes the impact of Giffords' weekend campaigning and apparent momentum for Barber.
As for Giffords, her husband says she may reenter public service once she has recovered sufficiently from her injuries.
At some point she could [run]," Mark Kelly told Politico. "She's getting better all the time, It's certainly not going to be this term, and I don't know after that."
"She wants to get back to public service," Kelly added in the Politico interview. "Whether it's elected office, I don't know."
*CORRECTION: This sentence has been changed to remove a comment incorrectly attributed to Ron Barber.