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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Voters in the Arizona congressional district represented by Gabrielle Giffords are deciding how to replace her. She resigned in January, a year after being shot in a rampage by a gunman.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, the race for the seat is between Gifford's anointed successor - her former district director - and a Tea Party Republican, a candidate who lost to Giffords two years ago.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: Four months ago, Gabby Giffords told her constituents that she needed to concentrate on recovering from the gunshot wound she got in last year's Tucson shooting.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

REPRESENTATIVE GABRIELLE GIFFORDS: So to do what is best for Arizona, I will step down this week.

ROBBINS: That set in motion a special election to serve out the rest of Giffords' two-year term. Giffords' former district director, Ron Barber, won the Democratic nomination uncontested.

Jesse Kelly easily beat three opponents in the Republican primary. The 66-year-old Barber was wounded in the Giffords shooting, and he says Giffords herself asked him to run. He calls himself a moderate, like his former boss.

RON BARBER: The voters in this district really, I believe, are looking for moderation and pragmatic solutions to serious problems, and not ideological extremism.

ROBBINS: That last part implies Barber's opponent is extreme.

Jesse Kelly is a 30-year-old former Marine who describes himself as a member of the Tea Party. But he rejects the extremist label. He says he can appeal to anyone.

JESSE KELLY: It's southern Arizona families. It's veterans. It's seniors. It's people who just want a better economy, people who want more better jobs and lower gas prices.

ROBBINS: This is Kelly's second try for the seat. After a bitter campaign in 2010, he narrowly lost to Giffords. This time, the race's dominant focus has been on statements Kelly made two years about Social Security and Medicare. Here's a TV ad the Barber campaign's been running.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Kelly said he'd love to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.

KELLY: Social Security and Medicare, it's the biggest Ponzi scheme in history, to privatize it, to phase it out. Privatization is the only solution.

ROBBINS: Kelly responded with his own ad, featuring his grandfather and attacking Barber for supporting President Obama's health care overhaul, which Kelly says will hurt seniors.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADVERTISEMENT)

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Our seniors deserve better.

KELLY: I'm Jesse Kelly, and I approve this message, because I'm committed to protecting Social Security and Medicare for our seniors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't like Ron Barber cut my benefits, Jesse. I've earned them.

KELLY: Don't worry, grandpa. I won't.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I know you'll protect us.

ROBBINS: The district has a lot of seniors, and they vote. They were certainly out in force at the campaign's only public debate Wednesday night at the Tucson Jewish Community Center. At one point, the candidate asked each other questions. That led to this exchange between the Republican and the Democrat.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

KELLY: Who are you supporting for president in November?

BARBER: My vote is my vote, Mr. Kelly, as yours is, too. And I will not be talking about other elections...

ROBBINS: Barber's refusal to voice his support from President Obama is similar to statements from some other Democrats recently around the country. But much of the debate was taken up with Social Security and Medicare. Only this time, it was part of a broader discussion of the role of the federal government. Ron Barber said Social Security, Medicare, as well as any government health care reform depends on everyone's participation.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

BARBER: We cannot, as Mr. Kelly suggests, allow people to leave the system. That's what keeps the system solvent.

ROBBINS: Jesse Kelly said people should not be forced to participate.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEBATE)

KELLY: This is not Europe. This is not Russia. This is not some crazy place where our government allows us to do things. We are the land of the free. We do as we please in this nation.

ROBBINS: Kelly says government should be subordinate to business, that the rich should not be taxed more. Democratic voter Jack Fitzgerald isn't buying it. He's a Barber supporter.

JACK FITZGERALD: Greed is great if that's what you think, but it's strictly Middle America. All you got to do is just look at the records. Middle America is taking it in the shorts.

ROBBINS: Republican Pat Sexton agrees with Kelly's Tea Party philosophy. In fact, she wishes Gabby Giffords had resigned sooner so Kelly might have more time in office.

PAT SEXTON: And I'm sorry that anything like this had to happen, but if Ms. Giffords really was thinking about the voters and her constituents, she would have stepped down as soon as she knew she was not going to be able to do it.

ROBBINS: As it stands, this is the last term for anyone in Arizona's 8th District. It was just redrawn. In November, it becomes the 2nd District, with fewer Republicans and more Democrats. The special election is June 12th, but the race could well be decided by early ballots. They're coming in by mail at a record pace. Election officials say early ballots could make up 70 percent of the vote. Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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