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In Ariz. Contest, A Debate Over Government's Reach

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Voters in southern Arizona's 8th Congressional District are deciding who will fill the seat formerly held by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The Democrat resigned in January, a year after she was badly injured by a gunman at a district event in Tucson.

Giffords' resignation set in motion a special election to serve out the rest of her two-year term. Giffords' former district director, Ron Barber, won the Democratic nomination uncontested. Jesse Kelly easily beat three opponents in the Republican primary.

Barber, 66, was wounded in the Tucson shooting and says Giffords asked him to run. He calls himself a moderate like his former boss.

"The voters in this district really, I believe, are looking for moderation and pragmatic solutions to serious problems, and not ideological extremism," Barber says.

That last part implies that Barber's opponent is extreme. But Kelly, a 30-year-old former Marine who describes himself as a member of the Tea Party, rejects the extremist label, saying he can appeal to anyone.

"It's southern Arizona families, it's veterans, it's seniors, it's people who just want a better economy, people who want better jobs and lower gas prices," he says.

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 ago about Social Security and Medicare.

Barber has been running ads saying Kelly wants to eliminate Social Security and Medicare.

But Kelly responded with his own ad attacking Barber for supporting President Obama's health care overhaul, which Kelly says will hurt seniors. The ad features Kelly's grandfather.

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.

Much of the debate was taken up with Social Security and Medicare, but this time it was part of a broader discussion of the role of the federal government.

Barber said Social Security and Medicare, as well as any government health care overhaul, depend on everyone's participation.

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

But Kelly said people should not be forced to participate: "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."

Kelly says government should be subordinate to business, and the rich should not be taxed more.

Democratic voter Jack Fitzgerald isn't buying it, and he's supporting Barber.

"Greed is great, if that's what you think, but it's strictly middle America. All you gotta do is look at the records. Middle America is taking it in the shorts," Fitzgerald says.

Republican Pat Sexton agrees with Kelly's Tea Party philosophy. She even wishes Giffords had resigned sooner so Kelly might have more time in office.

"I'm sorry anything like this had to happen," Sexton says. "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 able to do it."

As it stands, this is the last term for anyone in Arizona's 8th Congressional District. It was just redrawn, and in November it becomes the 2nd District, with fewer Republicans and more Democrats.

The special election is June 12. But the race could well be decided by early ballots. They're coming in by mail at a record pace, and election officials say early ballots could make up 70 percent of the vote.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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