- Associated Press - Sunday, June 10, 2012

PHOENIX — Republicans are focusing on President Obama, not Gabrielle Giffords, and sensing a chance to capture the former Democratic congresswoman’s seat in southern Arizona.

Voters are deciding in Tuesday’s special election whether Republican Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Mrs. Giffords in 2010, or Democrat Ron Barber, a former Giffords aide asked by the lawmaker to pursue the seat, will complete the remainder of her term.

Mrs. Giffords relinquished the seat in January to concentrate on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head. Mrs. Giffords and Mr. Barber were injured in the January 2011 shooting rampage outside a Tucson grocery store that killed six people, including a 9-year-old girl and a federal judge, and wounded 11 others.

Mrs. Giffords largely has shunned public appearances in the race, but in the closing days is stepping out to help Mr. Barber. She joined the candidate at a get-out-the-vote rally Saturday.

Holding onto the seat is crucial for Democrats if they want to regain control of the House.

Jesse Kelly, the Republican candidate in southern Arizona's 8th Congressional District, seen here in April with wife Aubrey Kelly in Tucson, Ariz., is seeking the seat he narrowly lost in November 2010 in a special election on Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Jesse Kelly, the Republican candidate in southern Arizona’s 8th Congressional District, seen ... more >

The party needs a net gain of 25 seats in November to grab the majority from Republicans, who now hold a 240-192 advantage with three vacancies, including Mrs. Giffords‘ seat. Reflecting the closeness of the Arizona contest, Democrats made a last-minute appeal for money that referred to Mr. Kelly as a “radical, tea party Republican” and said Mr. Barber would fight to continue Mrs. Giffords‘ legacy in Congress.

Republicans who scoff at Democratic claims about winning the House are riding high after a decisive victory in Wisconsin’s gubernatorial election last Tuesday and have set their sights on Arizona. A victory Tuesday would give party leaders a chance to claim momentum five months before November and fine-tune their plan to link Democratic candidates to Mr. Obama, the incumbent at the top of the ticket.

“Rubber-stamp Ron Barber. More failed Obama policies that hurt Arizona,” says the latest television ad from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Early voting began May 17. Republican-affiliated groups have spent $1.3 million compared with $900,000 by Democrat-affiliated groups. The outside spending has helped Mr. Kelly counter Mr. Barber’s fundraising edge. Mr. Barber had $390,000 cash on hand at the end of May to Mr. Kelly’s $83,000.

More than 123,000 people had returned ballots they received by mail, and it’s anticipated that nearly two-thirds of the votes cast will be done through early voting.

Mr. Kelly says he would seek to repeal Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul law and oppose any effort to end the tax cuts enacted under President George W. Bush. Mr. Barber talks about changing some parts of the health law, requiring the wealthy to pay more to produce revenue and lowering taxes on the middle class.

Republicans seized on Mr. Barber’s recent stumble. In the latest candidate debate, Mr. Barber declined to say whom he would vote for in the presidential election. Republicans said Mr. Barber couldn’t be honest with voters. His campaign tried to clarify his nonanswer, saying later that he supported the president.