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As the results began to come in following the primary election last week, Kelly stepped in front of the TV cameras and repeated his familiar talking points.
Kelly told reporters that "voters have responded to our plan to lower taxes. ... We need jobs right now. ... We need to lower the cost of energy. ... The message of lower taxes, more jobs and lower gas prices remains the same."
Since his loss in 2010, Kelly has become much more cautious about what he says in front of reporters. He rarely gives an interview that lasts more than a few minutes (unless he's talking to friendly reporters who won't challenge him), and he sticks to simple talking points.
Sometimes, he seems to mix them up. During a GOP debate last month, Kelly told high-school students that the "only way" to create high-skilled jobs was to cut taxes and regulations and "get the EPA out of the way and out of our lives."
Kelly has become so fond of talking points that during a recent appearance on Fox News' Hannity, he blamed looting by African-American kids at a Florida drug store "100 percent on Barack Obama. ... He's willing to stick his nose into anything these days to get the American people's minds off the fact that there's really 14 percent unemployment and gas at $4 a gallon when we have more oil than Saudi Arabia in this country.
"I think he will literally try anything to try to get the American people to stop thinking about that," Kelly continued, "and I can't wait until we actually get a president who loves this country in November."
Kelly's comments led fellow panelist Steven Crowder to marvel that Kelly "tied in every talking point he needed to right there."
But as well as Kelly delivers those talking points, he's demonstrated little ability to talk with any depth about the impact of his proposals. He no longer does one-on-one, face-to-face interviews, preferring to answer questions through brief emails.
Kelly's skittishness around the press is hardly surprising, given that his tendency to take unpopular positions in the last election ended up haunting him. He told the Tucson Weekly that he wanted to privatize Medicare in order to get seniors "off the dole" and that he would "love to eliminate Social Security." He has supported the elimination of the minimum wage and corporate taxes.
His other tax proposals have been all over the map. He frequently calls for a flat 10 percent tax on all Americans, because "if 10 percent was good enough for Jesus, it's good enough for the federal government." At other times, he has supported Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan's proposal to have a 10 percent bracket for lower-income Americans and a 25 percent bracket for higher earners while introducing a national sales tax to help make up for the loss of income-tax revenue. At other times, he has proposed scrapping the income-tax system entirely, and introducing a 30 percent sales tax on goods.
At a debate last month, Kelly expressed outrage that Democrats would concern themselves with the impact of tax cuts on the federal budget. He exclaimed: "Our president says things like, 'They passed tax cuts that weren't paid for.' Paid for? It's their spending that isn't paid for!"
Despite the lack of depth, Kelly has come a long way since he started running for office less than three years ago. He's won two GOP congressional primaries by defeating two Republican state lawmakers with more political experience (Jonathan Paton and Frank Antenori), two Air Force pilots (Martha McSally and Brian Miller) and a businessman who has decades of experience as a local sportscaster (Dave Sitton).
And in 2010, he came within a few thousand votes of toppling Giffords. But his own radical conservatism, along with a strong campaign by Team Giffords, kept him from winning in a year in which Republicans triumphed from coast to coast.
Kelly had been planning to challenge Giffords once again, but the Jan. 8, 2011, shootings forced him to cancel any announcement. He tried his hand at talk radio for the first few months of 2011, but eventually moved to Texas with his family to manage a construction project there. He moved back to Tucson after Giffords' resignation in order to run in the special election.
Kelly, who grew up in Montana, does not have deep roots in Southern Arizona. He dropped out of Montana State University after his freshman year—he says he "absolutely hated it"—and signed up for the Marines. After spending four years in the service (including being part of the Iraq war), he left the Marines and moved to Tucson in 2004 to take a job with his father's company, Don Kelly Construction.
Kelly said he decided to run for Congress because he thought the country was "going radically the wrong way." While he has nothing good to say about Obama, he thinks the country got on the wrong track during the Bush administration. Kelly wants a dramatically smaller government—he proposes doing away with federal spending on education, including support for K-12 schools and college loans and grants, and scaling back environmental regulations. He would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Education and the Department of Energy entirely.
Barber takes a more measured approach to managing the federal government.
"There are going to be plenty of places where Mr. Kelly and I disagree about what needs to be done," Barber says. "I hear all across the district about the concerns about the disappearing middle class. People are losing their jobs. If they're working, they're working at jobs where they're underemployed. Their jobs don't really match their skills. People are losing their homes. Their wages have been stagnant. And from what I've seen of what Mr. Kelly has said in the debates, he would favor policies that further push down middle-class Americans."
While Kelly has declined to say whether he would have voted for the Republican budget that passed the House last month (but stands no chance in the U.S. Senate), Barber says he would have opposed it, because it would "make devastating cuts to Medicare and would end Medicare as we know it by turning it into a voucher program. That would allow the healthiest seniors to leave the system and make it less solvent, because the government would be left with just sick and unhealthy adults. Mr. Kelly has said that he thinks Medicare is 'the dole,' and we ought to get Americans off it. From my point of view, Medicare is a solemn commitment that we've made. People have paid into it all their lives, and they expect it to be there when they retire."
He dismisses Kelly's repeated assertion that the United States has more oil than Saudi Arabia.
"We know that America has a lot of oil reserves, but they're far beyond our reach with the current technology," says Barber, who supports continued investment in renewable energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal. "I'm going to base my energy policy on facts, not on misinformation."
Barber appears to be counting on voters to see through Kelly's act.
"I think there's going to be a difference not only in how we approach policy, but also how we approach voters," Barber says. "I'm not going to talk down to voters. I think voters want to hear factual information, and then they will make up their minds."