ARI SHAPIRO, host:
Now from California to neighboring Arizona, where the 8th Congressional District lies along Mexico's border. That border is the focus of the House race this year, where an Arizona rancher was murdered last march, possibly by Mexican drug runners.
That incident and the state's new immigration law have the candidates talking tough. NPR's Ted Robbins reports from Tucson.
TED ROBBINS: There's an old saying in Spanish - Quien es mas macho? Who's tougher? That pretty much sums up the debate in the district over border security and immigration.
Two-term incumbent Democrat Gabrielle Giffords can't afford to look soft, so there's no talk of immigration reform. Instead, she reminds voters, like this group in northwest Tucson, how she fought to get $600 million for border security this summer.
Representative GABRIELLE GIFFORDS (Democrat, Arizona): Also bringing the National Guard to the border, more ATF, FBI, DEA. We're going to bring as many resources to stop this problem so we can go on and focus on other issues for the state of Arizona and not solving what the federal government's inaction and inability to secure this border for a long time.
(Soundbite of applause)
ROBBINS: Catch that last part, blaming the federal government? That has become a requirement for any Arizona politician. So is the support of those living on the border. Giffords is running TV ads featuring ranchers like Gary Thrasher.
(Soundbite of ad)
Mr. GARY THRASHER (Rancher): She's probably the best advocate for border security that we've ever had down here. I can talk to her; she's accessible. She's one for our side, I'll tell you that.
ROBBINS: Not according to Giffords' opponent, Tea Party Republican Jesse Kelly. An ad for his campaign trashes Giffords' stance as not tough enough -especially when it comes to Arizona's state immigration law.
(Soundbite of ad)
Unidentified Woman: Giffords opposes S.B. 1070 and stopped construction of our border fence. Does Gabrielle Giffords represent your values?
ROBBINS: Giffords voted to fund the 700 miles of border fencing and vehicle barriers now in place, but Kelly wants a double-layer fence for the entire 2,100 miles of U.S.-Mexico border. Giffords opposed S.B. 1070, but she also urged the Justice Department not to sue Arizona over the law, which it did anyway.
Kelly wants S.B. 1070 and existing law used to force illegal immigrants to leave.
Mr. JESSE KELLY (Republican Congressional Candidate, Arizona): Whether you self-deport because of our employer sanctions - I mean, you can't find work so you return home - or whether you are apprehended and discovered to be illegal and then are returned home, either way you must return to your country of citizenship and then come here legally.
ROBBINS: The fight for the hard line on the border is no surprise in this congressional district. But Jesse Kelly is the surprise Republican nominee. He got the Tea Party base to the polls and beat a more moderate Republican.
Like all Tea Party candidates, Kelly wants a smaller federal government. In fact, he told the audience at a Tucson retirement home that he opposes most federal spending.
Mr. KELLY: There's absolutely nothing in the federal government you cannot reduce after you've fulfilled your constitutional obligations of defending this nation.
ROBBINS: Kelly also opposes stimulus funding, though the 28-year-old former Marine works for his father's construction company, which does mostly government work. But his small-government rhetoric resonates with Republican voters like Del Strunk, who says he's tired of Gabrielle Giffords and Democratic spending.
Mr. DEL STRUNK: I've got to tell you, she votes the party line - with(ph) ching-a-ching-a-ching-a-ching.
ROBBINS: Giffords is saddled with the baggage being a Democrat carries this year. But she says Jesse Kelly is too extreme for a district split almost evenly between Democrats, Republicans and independents.
Rep. GIFFORDS: This is a moderate swing district, and I'm one of the most moderate members of Congress.
ROBBINS: Issues beyond the border will probably decide this race - what to do with Social Security, the Bush tax cuts and the health care bill. Because when it comes to border security and immigration, the candidates running for Arizona's 8th seem to take only two lines - hard and harder.
Tom Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.
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