MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Voters in Arizona's 8th Congressional district go to the polls tomorrow in a special election. They'll be choosing someone to fill out the term of former Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. Giffords resigned her seat after being critically wounded in a shooting last year. She wants to focus full-time on her recovery. Running to fill the remaining six months of her term are her former district director and a Republican businessman who's also an Iraq War veteran.
NPR's Brian Naylor has the story.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The special election bears some small resemblance to the 2010 campaign in the Tucson-based district. Jesse Kelly is once again the Republican candidate, hoping to reverse the results of almost two years ago when he lost by some 4,000 thousand votes. He's running against Ron Barber, who was Gabby Giffords top aide in Arizona.
But of course nothing is the same in the 8th District since the 2011 shooting, in which Giffords and Barber were wounded and six people killed. In an interview, Barber says he's in the race to help the middle class.
RON BARBER: I've been hearing over and over again from middle-class Arizonans that they're really feeling squeezed, and that no one really cares about their concerns.
NAYLOR: Barber and Kelly have tangled over a number of issues in what, by all accounts, will be a tight race in a year when both parties are scrambling for every seat. Kelly, who in the 2010 race called Social Security a Ponzi scheme has backed away from that comment. He declined to be interviewed by NPR, but told MSNBC that beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare should be given choices between government and private programs.
JESSE KELLY: Right now, Medicare recipients are getting less quality care than they ever have because the access to doctors is decreasing. That's because the government simply won't pay its bills. Doctors are trying to get paid for the Medicare patients and they're not getting paid by the government. Give future generations choices so they won't be stuck with anything bad.
NAYLOR: Kelly says he would repeal the Affordable Care Act or ObamaCare. Barber says parts of the program should be kept and others made to work better.
In the aftermath of last years shooting, Kelly has toned down his send a warrior to Congress theme from 2010, although a PAC supporting Kelly this time around did send out a fundraising email using a photo of the ex-Marine in camouflage holding an assault rifle.
Kelly's own ads have presented a kinder, gentler image of him as a family man. The National Republican Congressional Committee has run ads on Kelly's behalf, implying Barber would be a pawn for President Obama.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Higher taxes. Higher gas prices. Higher unemployment. Rubberstamp Ron Barber is helping Obama, but he's hurting Arizona.
NAYLOR: Barber has tried to keep Kelly from tying him to the president in a district that leans Republican. During a debate, he famously refused to state whether he'd vote to re-elect Mr. Obama. Now he says he would, but says Republicans are trying to nationalize the race.
BARBER: This race is really about Congressional District 8, the southern part of our state and the communities and the people that live here. I'm not going to be drawn into a national debate about issues that have nothing to do ultimately with what's good for the people I hope to represent.
NAYLOR: Barber has out-raised and outspent Kelly, but Kelly has benefited from slightly more from spending by outside groups.
Early voting has been underway for some time. Barber held a rally Saturday night with Gabby Giffords, who made a rare public appearance on behalf of her former staffer.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
NAYLOR: Her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, said Giffords' decision to step down to focus on her rehab was incredibly difficult.
MARK KELLY: But she knew that at that point it made sense for her to step down. And the person that she knew could represent this community the way she did is this man standing to our left.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
NAYLOR: No matter who wins this special election, both candidates say they'll be back on the campaign trail this fall, running for a full two-year term. But the winner tomorrow will clearly have the advantage going into November.
Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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