TUCSON, Ariz. – A runaway primary victory by Democrat Gabrielle Giffords and Republican Randy Graf's solid triumph over a better-heeled, bitter rival set up a November faceoff for southern Arizona's 8th Congressional District.
But while Democrats immediately began coalescing behind Giffords — with chief rival Patty Weiss conceding to Giffords in person and then pinning on a Giffords campaign button — it's unclear whether fractious Republicans will similarly come together.
Eleven-term U.S. Rep. Jim Kolbe, a Republican, is retiring from what is considered a swing district — where Republicans hold a 6 percent edge over Democrats in registered voters but another 26 percent are independents.
As did the primaries, the general election race will draw national attention as Democrats try to pry House control from Republicans.
The key issue for Graf, and for all the Republicans in the primary, was illegal immigration and border security.
The issue resonates with many voters in both parties because Arizona has been the nation's focal point for several years for illegal immigrant trafficking, along with fears of potential terrorist intrusions across the porous border.
Democrats focused on the war in Iraq, health care and education during the primary, as well as advocating a comprehensive solution to the border issue.
Giffords, a former state senator, cruised past Weiss, a former local television anchor, and four other challengers in Tuesday's Democratic race, securing more than 54 percent of the vote — about 23 percent more than Weiss, who finished second.
Giffords had 28,008 votes to 16,166, or 31.3 percent for Weiss, with 94.8 percent of the district's precincts reporting.
Graf received 22,841 votes, or 43.2 percent, to defeat state Rep. Steve Huffman, who had 19,664 votes, or 37.2 percent.
Huffman declined to concede Tuesday night or early Wednesday and did not return phone calls immediately.
Huffman's campaign, which raised nearly twice as much money as Graf's, aired several television ads labeling Graf as an extremist, similar to the ad campaign used two years ago by Kolbe to defeat Graf. Kolbe had endorsed Huffman.
Huffman also received a late financial boost when the National Republican Congressional Committee injected advertising money on his behalf — which broke a neutrality stance in the five-candidate primary.
But that donation provoked a backlash among supporters of Graf and the other three Republican candidates, a factor that Graf attributed to helping him win.
"I think the voters said enough is enough. There's a bit of a frustration with what goes on in Washington, D.C.; this to a certain extent exemplified that, and the other four candidates all stayed on the issues, and ultimately that's what put this together for us," Graf said.
"We stayed on the issue, kept our campaign on the up-and-up and talked about the issues we've talked about for years, and the voters appreciated that," he said.
No other Democrat had more than Jeffrey Latas' 5.9 percent. Other Democrats on the ballot included Alex Rodriguez, Francine Shacter and Bill Johnson, while Mike Hellon finished third among Republicans with 12.2 percent of the vote, followed by Frank Antenori and Mike Jenkins.
Giffords attributed her victory to "a terrific campaign, We worked very, very hard, we reached out to thousands and thousands of people, delivering a message to secure the border, balance the budget, stop bickering, and that change can't wait."
She said the key to defeating the Republican nominee in November will be to convince voters of the difference in ideology and that "change is necessary to put our country back on track."
Weiss showed up at Giffords' victory party to congratulate her and pledge her support. "I have no regrets over any of this, and I'm very impressed with Gabby Giffords," she said.
The Democratic and Republican nominees also will face Libertarian David Nolan and Independent Jay Quick in the Nov. 7 general election.