In Arizona, a tentative return to politics as Giffords recovers

Potential candidates hesitant to act too soon

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The idea of challenging Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords for her congressional seat was once unthinkable, but a few potential candidates are starting to test the political waters.

The temperature so far: lukewarm to chilly. “I still think it’s taboo,” said Arizona political analyst Mike O’Neil. “Somebody’s jumped the gun.”

The Democratic congresswoman became a national heroine after she survived an assassination attempt at a grocery store meet-and-greet with constituents in January. She made her first public appearance last month at the House debt-ceiling vote, but has yet to say whether she will run for reelection as she undergoes extensive medical rehabilitation work in Houston.

“There is such an aura of goodwill around her,” Mr. O’Neil said. “How long it goes, I don’t know, but I still think it’s still in effect.”

The candidate receiving the coolest reception is Anthony Prowell of Tucson, who recently filed to challenge Mrs. Giffords for the Democratic nomination. Mr. Prowell, a special-education teacher and political newcomer, says he’s gotten the brush-off from Pima County Democrats and may switch to the Green Party instead.

“I tried to speak with people here in the Tucson office, and nobody emailed me or called me back,” Mr. Prowell told KMSB-TV, the local Fox-TV affiliate, in Tucson. “I understand a lot of people love [Mrs. Giffords] as their own. And that’s fine, it doesn’t bother me.”

On the Republican side, state Sen. Frank Antenori has formed an exploratory committee to weigh a run. Before anyone paints him as the black-hearted villain, however, he wants to make clear that his final decision rests on a couple of unknowns.

The first is whether Mrs. Giffords decides run again. If she does, will he challenge her? “No, probably not,” said Mr. Antenori.

Mrs. Giffords has obviously been through a lot,” said Mr. Antenori, a former Green Beret medic. “She’s got a lot of admirers and she would be very difficult to beat in a head-to-head race in a very competitive district. So that’ll have an impact on whether I decide to run.”

The second unknown lies with the district map. Arizona will gain a ninth congressional seat in 2012, and an initial draft of the revised political map puts the new seat in southern Arizona, with Ms. Giffords in one district and Mr. Antenori in another.

If Mr. Antenori winds up in the open district, he wants to be ready to run immediately instead of scrambling to launch an eleventh-hour campaign — which is the same scenario facing Arizona Democrats if Ms. Giffords declines to seek re-election late in the game.

“I’ve spoken to several Democrats in southern Arizona who are chomping at the bit to get in the race, but after what happened to [Mr. Prowell], they don’t want to touch it,” Mr. Antenori said. “If there’s a last-minute decision, they’re going to be caught flat-footed trying to put together a campaign operation.”

Another Republican to watch is Jesse Kelly, a tea-party favorite who nearly upended Ms. Giffords in their 2010 race. Mr. Kelly’s Facebook page continues to list him as a congressional candidate, although he has not campaigned actively this year.

Arizona Democratic Party spokeswoman Jennifer Johnson said the party continues to support Ms. Giffords and that “there is no specific timetable for her to decide.” Ms. Giffords‘ friends in Congress have raised money for her 2012 war chest so she won’t have to play catch-up on the fundraising trail.

“Our position is that we support the congresswoman and that if she does decide not to run, that’s an appropriate time to begin discussing other candidates,” said Ms. Johnson. “Her family and staff say there’s no specific deadline.”

Ms. Giffords‘ uncertain status is also having an impact on the Senate race. Several Republicans, led by Rep. Jeff Flake, have filed to run for the seat being vacated by retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, but so far only one Democrat, former state party chair Don Bivens, has formed an exploratory committee.

If Ms. Giffords were to enter the race — one many thought she might consider before the January shooting — she would become the instant front-runner and the party’s best chance to capture the Senate seat in a state dominated by Republicans. Other Democrats are said to be waiting for her to make a decision before going forward with their own bids.

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