When Ron Barber announced his candidacy for Arizona's 8th Congressional District, the Democrat was inundated with voters thrilled to seem him running for "Gabby's seat."
But Barber says even former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords agreed when, at a rally, he looked over at her and said "I know you would agree with me that this is not your seat, this is not my seat, this is the American people's seat."
After 22 years as a small business owner, Barber quit his job to volunteer for Giffords's campaign. He describes the former lawmaker as a visionary who deserves the utmost respect, adding that he's been careful not to exploit a tragedy to advance his political aspirations. [Find out about the women of the Senate.]
It is a tightrope Barber has been walking since declaring his intentions to run for in the district's special election, scheduled for June 12.
In January 2011, during a "Congress in your Corner" event outside of a local Tucson grocery store, Giffords suffered a close-range gunshot wound to the head. Barber, who was then the congresswoman's district director, was also shot. [See pictures of Tucson Shooting Anniversary Vigil.]
"I don't want this election to be about sympathy or anybody's legacy," Barber insists. "I want it to be about who is the best candidate for the job."
In a rare political appearance, however, Giffords is attending a concert and a get-out-the-vote event Saturday with Barber in Tucson.Two other candidates are vying for the District 8 seat: Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis and Republican Jesse Kelly. All three are diligently working to appeal to voters on their own records.
Kelly, who is an Iraq War veteran and Tea Party favorite, lost narrowly in 2010 to Giffords. The enlisted serviceman is a strong supporter of building a border fence and preserving gun rights. He fervently opposes the president's Affordable Care Act, TARP and other economic stimulus provisions.
Barber calls him "radical," but Kelly's campaign defends that he will work with anyone in Congress who is drawn to "common sense solutions."
"Jesse has a very simple philosophy," Kelly's spokesman John Ellinwood says. "He is going to work with anyone who wants to lower taxes, grow the economy, and bring back jobs."
So far the candidates have spent just under $2 million on the election. Campaign finance reports show that Barber spent $1.2 million while Kelly has spent $711,832. There are no records for Manolakis.
While Ellinwood is pleased with where the campaign sits a week out, he says no one at campaign headquarters is ready to rest on their laurels.
"It's not over until it is over," Ellinwood says. "We are not taking anything for granted."
Neither is Barber, who has worked to appeal to conservative and independent voters by earning the endorsement of local leaders of all political stripes. He even appointed a past Republican mayor and a current Democratic mayor to serve as his campaign's co-chairs.
"I wanted to send an important message that we have a campaign that is big tent," Barber says. "People across the board can come and find a home."
Barber has tried so hard to seem moderate, that he has been reticent to speak out about his views on President Barack Obama.
During a debate, Barber took heat for not directly answering a question about whether or not he would vote for Obama. Later, Barber clarified his statement by saying that he intends to vote for the president. But Barber insists that he won't always vote with Obama.
"I have not agreed with the president on everything he has done," Barber says.
The result of the special election is not likely to be the end of the face-off between Barber and Kelly. Both candidates have said that regardless of the results, they intend to run in the state's newly districted 2nd District seat in November.
Lauren Fox is a political reporter at U.S. News and World report. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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