Tussle in Tucson For Giffords Seat

Dem Candidate Unsure About Voting for ObamaCare

Voters in Arizona's 8th congressional district will start casting ballots today while the candidates looking to fill the seat vacated by now-retired Democratic Rep. Gabriele Giffords spent a spirited hour Wednesday night -- including dueling accusations of lying --in their only televised debate talking about the future of ObamaCare, Medicare and Social Security.

Symbolically and practically Democrat Ron Barber is looking to follow in the footsteps of his former boss. "In 2006, I began working with Gabrielle Giffords, and was honored to be named her district director in 2007," Barber writes on his campaign website. "I am eager to continue all this work in Congress."

But on Wednesday night Barber, who's been attacked for supporting ObamaCare, refused to say whether he would have voted for the controversial measure had he been in office. "I really can't respond to a hypothetical question like that," Barber told the debate moderators from Arizona Public Media. Later in the debate he said he's in favor of making changes to the law. Giffords voted for President Obama's signature domestic legislation.

A couple of months ago, Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, attended a rally at the Barber campaign office and just sent out a fundraising appeal. "Ron has been there for us. When Gabby made her first run for Congress, Ron got behind her 100% right from the beginning. Now, we need your support behind Democrats like Ron."

Polls close June 12 and the victor will hardly have time to organize his office on Capitol Hill before having to focus on an August primary for a chance at a full two-year term in November.

Republican Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010 and is not related to her husband, says he won by the votes of people who showed up to the polls on election day two years ago but it wasn't enough to take the seat. While Kelly says his top issues of lower taxes and job creation remain the same it was clear the top matter Wednesday night was the future of entitlements and health care.

"We have a high quality system but it's too expensive because the government currently control 50 percent of it," Kelly said. "We need to walk back those taxes and burdensome regulations. And then we'll bring down the costs of the system."

One Arizona political analyst calls the race an absolute toss-up, which is somewhat of a rarity in contemporary American politics where gerrymandered districts more frequently produce pre-ordained results.

"It's one of the two most interesting races in country that may provide a window on how the winds are blowing for November," pollster Michael O'Neill said comparing this race to the recall election in Wisconsin. He said the results of that race, a week earlier, combined with the Kelly-Barber special election would give tremendous momentum to either party if their respective candidates could sweep both competitive contests.

Perhaps knowing that, the race has generated deep-pocketed interest from Washington with significant television ad buys from the campaign arms of the two major parties plus much more in outside spending. A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee says they've committed $600,000 in ads attacking Barber for among other things supporting ObamaCare. In one spot the grandfather was depicted as nothing more than a rubber stamp for Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama.

In Wednesday's debate, Barber went on the attack first. "Privatization has been suggested and certainly Mr. Kelly has said repeatedly said he would like to privatize and eliminate and phase out these programs. That's wrong for southern Arizona seniors and that's wrong for seniors across the nation."

Kelly's ties to privatization have come up repeatedly in attacks from the Barber campaign, nearly $500,000 in ads bought by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and a $340,000 ad buy from a left-leaning group called House Majority PAC that says the businessman and retired Marine has "too many dangerous ideas" and is "too extreme for us."

They use clips of speeches Kelly made several years ago likening Medicare and Social Security to a ponzi scheme. Kelly's campaign says the remarks have been taken out of context. And Wednesday night Kelly blasted his opponent for the attacks. "To cut up video clips on TV and take them out of context, I find to be really, really, sad campaign tactics."

"He's always been very clear about not impacting benefits for current retirees," NRCC's Daniel Scarpinato says in Kelly's defense while blasting Democrats for distorting the businessman and retired marine's real positions. On his website, Kelly says he does not support privatization. "I will fully honor our commitment to current retirees and will not support any plan that impacts their benefits. We must also ensure these programs are preserved for future retirees."

A surprising figure in the race is Kelly's grandfather, Hank Allgyer, who makes an appearance in an ad for his grandson telling him, "don't let Ron Barber cut my [Medicare] benefits, Jesse. I've earned them." Kelly says Barber's support of ObamaCare also means support for $500 million in cuts to Medicare and $500 million in tax hikes.

For his part, Barber says he's not going to support efforts to cut Medicare or Medicaid but in a sign of how he needs to hew close to the center in this swing district, beyond saying he doesn't know how he would have voted on ObamaCare, Barber emphasized the need for a moderate approach in Congress.

Late in the debate during a heated discussion of energy policy Kelly accused Barber of lying to southern Arizona voters. "Sadly, that's not nearly the first lie that Ron Barber has told on this campaign. I am hoping that it will be the last....How embarrassing." In a sharp response Barber said this isn't first time Kelly has accused him of telling lies. "The facts are that I wasn't a liar and you're trying to misinform people. I just think you need to get your facts straight. You need to not be attacking me inappropriately....Making stuff up is not what this campaign is about and you've done a lot of it."

Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis also participated in the debate but of the 414,694 registered voters in the district only 810 are affiliated with the Green Party.