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The contenders in Congressional District 8 set out to prove they're conservative enough to challenge Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords

It's a sunny February afternoon, and Republican Jesse Kelly steps up to a microphone at El Presidio Park to introduce J.D. Hayworth, a former congressman who is touring the state to kick off his insurgent challenge to U.S. Sen. John McCain.

"Today is a day of reckoning," says Kelly. "It is a day when liberals in both parties have to stand before the American people and answer for their actions. It's a day when we get to join together and point to Washington and tell them they no longer have the consent of the governed."

This is vintage Jesse Kelly: apocalyptic rhetoric delivered with a preacher's passion, often mixed with a dash of "aw, shucks" charm. The former Marine plans to take no prisoners on his campaign to unseat Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. He says he sees the Obama administration as a threat to the nation's very existence. "This president," he warns, "is trying to destroy this country with liberalism."

Kelly is tapping the frustrations, fears and resentments that are powerful forces within the Republican Party in this year of the Tea Party. He hopes his anti-government platform—he wants to cut spending on federal bureaucracy by 20 percent across the board, scrap the Department of Education and move toward privatizing Social Security and Medicare—will carry him to victory in Congressional District 8, which stretches from Tucson to Southern Arizona's border with Mexico.

Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in the district, 37 percent to 33 percent, but Giffords has won both her races by 12 percentage points by winning over independents and moderate Republicans.

Kelly isn't interested in capturing moderate voters. In fact, he warns that the liberals who lurk within the Republican Party are a big part of the problem in America today.

And he says one of those liberals is his chief rival in the GOP primary: former state lawmaker Jonathan Paton.

"You're not a conservative," Kelly told Paton at a recent debate in Green Valley. "Now I understand that it's Republican primary season, and it's the year of the Tea Party, and you would like to be one. It's fashionable. But you're not. Own it. That's your record."

Paton isn't the only other candidate in the primary that Republican voters will decide on Aug. 24. There's also Air Force vet Brian Miller, a "constitutional conservative" who wants to drastically prune back government; Army vet Andy Goss, who complains that Obama is setting himself up as "a supreme emperor or something like that"; and Jay Quick, a metal-shop owner who is running a low-profile campaign that's mostly focused on criticizing how partisan his opponents are.

But Paton and Kelly have emerged as the front-runners in the pack—and Paton doesn't appreciate Kelly's suggestion that he's a squishy moderate.

"I am conservative," says Paton, who has also adopted the anti-government rhetoric that's in vogue this year. He warns young voters that Democratic politicians are "stealing your birthright" and tells seniors that "we don't recognize our country anymore because of what's happening in Washington, D.C."

Before he resigned from the Arizona Legislature earlier this year to run for Congress, Paton developed a conservative voting record. He supported bills to get tough on illegal immigrants, including SB 1070, the new Arizona law that puts local police on the hunt for people without documents. He supported tax cuts and, when the state hit its financial crisis, reductions in spending; he says that his cuts to education programs were so deep that his own brother, a schoolteacher, lost his job and had to move out of state to find work. He supported putting a proposition on the ballot to ban gay marriage in Arizona, although he sidesteps the question of whether he personally believes gays should have the right to be married.

Paton enjoys the support of the GOP establishment in the race. He's been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Congressmen Jeff Flake and John Shadegg, and Pima County Supervisor Ray Carroll. He tapped local business leaders like auto dealer Jim Click and land speculator Don Diamond, as well as his national connections, to raise more than a half-million dollars in campaign contributions by the end of April. (New reports are due next week.)

A Tucson native, Paton, 39, has been building his political connections since his days at the University of Arizona, where he earned a bachelor's degree in German. After spending a semester as an intern at the Arizona Legislature during the Symington administration, he was hooked on politics.

"I learned a lot about the ways things work and the way they don't work," Paton says. "It made me realize that you could be a regular person and run for office."

He made his first run for the Arizona House of Representatives in 1998, when he was just 27, with an unsuccessful challenge to two GOP incumbents. He lost a second state House of Representatives race two years later to a young Gabrielle Giffords, who made her political debut that year.

Paton spent the next four years developing a lobbying firm, with clients that included the Southern Arizona Home Builders Association and the payday-loan industry. He also consulted on political campaigns, including an unsuccessful effort to raise the city sales tax for transportation spending in 2001.

When a House seat opened in District 30, which ranges from Tucson's eastside to Green Valley and Sierra Vista, Paton finally won election to the Legislature.

He won re-election to the House in 2006, making national headlines by waging his campaign long-distance from Iraq, where he served as an intelligence officer for six months after he volunteered to be activated from his Army Reserve unit. He moved up to the state Senate in 2008.

During his time in office, Paton made sure he kept his ties to the business community strong. He stayed close to old friends in the homebuilding industry, pushing legislation that limited the ability of cities and towns to charge impact fees. He worked on legislation to hamper unions and scored a big victory against local Democrats last year when he passed a bill that eliminated partisan elections in Tucson, where Democrats outnumber Republicans and had long dominated the City Council.

After a string of deaths among Southern Arizona children who had been under the oversight of the state's Child Protective Services, Paton pushed legislation that required more communication between CPS workers and police, and opened up CPS case files that involved children who died or nearly died.

"A lot of the problems weren't being exposed because the agency was being really secretive, and it wasn't being held accountable," Paton says.

Paton also developed good relations with the press, winning multiple Freedom of Information awards from the Arizona Newspapers Association for supporting legislation to open public records.

Paton had been planning a run for another term in the state Senate this year. But as polls began to show the public souring on the Democratic Congress, and Republican Steve Kozachik defeated City Councilwoman Nina Trasoff in heavily Democratic Tucson last November, Giffords looked increasingly vulnerable. In January, Paton announced he'd jump into the congressional race.

By the time Paton pulled the trigger, the Republican primary was already a crowded field. And none of the other candidates had any plans to drop out.

In any other year, Paton's experience would be an asset. But in a year when incumbents are considered the problem, Jesse Kelly is working hard to make it a liability.

Kelly, 28, can certainly claim the mantle of political outsider. He grew up in Montana and spent one year at Montana State University before dropping out of college—he says he "hated it"—and joining the U.S. Marine Corps. His four-year tour of service included a deployment for the Iraq invasion in 2003.

When he left the Marines in 2004, Kelly moved to Tucson and went to work for father's construction company, Don Kelly Construction.

Kelly wasn't particularly engaged in politics after moving to Tucson. He registered as an independent rather than a Republican as a protest, he says, against the way that the Bush administration and the Republican Congress were expanding government. He rarely voted, casting ballots only in the 2004, 2006 and 2008 general elections. He sat out primaries and the special election in 2006 that increased the county sales tax by a half-cent to pay for transportation projects.

Despite his political inexperience, Kelly has built a loyal cadre of supporters. He's sharp on the stump; following two Tea Party-sponsored debates, audience members picked Kelly as the winner over Paton.

He was able to raise $367,331 between April 2009 and April 2010—an impressive haul for a political rookie, although it's significantly less than the half-million dollars that Paton was able to raise in just one quarter.

When he first started running, Kelly tried to curry favor from U.S. Sen. John McCain by attending a fundraiser and seeking meetings with Arizona's senior senator. But after Paton entered the race (with encouragement from party insiders who thought he'd make a stronger candidate than Kelly), he switched gears and embraced Hayworth.

Kelly has racked up endorsements from conservative groups such as Citizens United and the Team America Political Action Committee, and from conservative firebrands such as state Sen. Russell Pearce, Arizona Congressman Trent Franks and former congressmen Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter.

Randy Graf, the conservative former state lawmaker who lost to Giffords in 2006, announced last month that he'd be voting for Kelly.

"I think Jesse is the most conservative and the best candidate to run against Giffords in the general election," says Graf, who now works with Rosemont Copper, the Canadian company that hopes to extract more than 8 billion pounds of copper from the Santa Rita Mountains. (The open-pit mining project, which will suck up groundwater from an aquifer shared by the retirement community of Green Valley, is opposed by many local pols, including Paton and Giffords. Kelly supports the mine, as do Miller and Goss; Quick opposes it.)

Kelly has blasted Paton as a "big-government Republican," saying that Paton was rated as a "Friend of Big Government" by the Arizona Federation of Taxpayers/Americans for Prosperity in 2007. (In 2009, the group ranked him as a "Champion of the Taxpayer"; in other years, his score ranged from "Needs Improvement" to "Not Bad.") He's criticized Paton's votes on state budgets that increased spending during Arizona's boom years.

But Paton has fired back at Kelly, saying that the family construction business that employs him is dependent on government spending. By Kelly's own estimation, about 90 percent of the firm's business, which mostly involves installing pipelines, comes from government contracts. Public records show that Don Kelly Construction has been selected by various jurisdictions in the West to receive tens of millions of dollars from projects funded through stimulus and earmark programs.

"It's ironic hearing him talk about spending when he has been a part of lobbying government for more money for his company, while he is criticizing others for spending and saying that he opposes the stimulus bill," Paton says. "I think it's hypocritical, and it's going to put him in a very difficult position when he tries to criticize Gabrielle Giffords on that item. He's going to say, 'It isn't providing jobs,' and she is going to turn around say, 'It gave you a job.' It certainly helped out the bottom line for Kelly Construction."

One major point of contention between Paton and Kelly: In 2005, Paton pushed through a law that created stiff new penalties for human traffickers who smuggle people across the border.

When the bill was heard in committee, critics warned that it would allow police to arrest not only coyotes who smuggle immigrants for profit, but also anyone who drove around a friend or relative. In response, Paton insisted that it was narrowly targeted at smugglers. In the end, the bill was one of the few immigration measures signed into law by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.

But after it became law, then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the controversial Republican who is now running for Arizona attorney general, began using the bill to charge illegal immigrants with conspiring to smuggle themselves into the country. The prosecutions faced a legal challenge, but courts ruled that Thomas was on solid legal ground with his use of the statute.

As the legal fight over the interpretation of the law was underway, Arizona Republic columnist E.J. Montini quoted Paton as saying that he "gave (the governor and other lawmakers) my word that (the law) was only to go after the smugglers. We probably wouldn't have gotten the votes and (Gov. Janet Napolitano's) signature to get it passed into law." And Paton told the Phoenix New Times that going after illegal immigrants "was not part of my plan."

Kelly sees Paton's comments as evidence that he didn't want prosecutors going after illegal immigrants. Kelly says it's one reason why he won the endorsement of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Arpaio, whose deputies arrested illegal immigrants alongside smugglers under Paton's law, recently told conservative blogger Jim Kelley that Paton "helped pass the law that goes after the coyotes, but he doesn't want to follow through with arresting the low-level guys."

Paton maintains that he never objected to Thomas' use of the law, although he admits telling reporters that the bill was not designed to go after illegal immigrants themselves—because if it had been, the bill would have been vetoed by then-Gov. Janet Napolitano.

"I was asked if it was written with the intention of prosecuting the illegals themselves, and I answered that truthfully: That's not the way it was originally written," Paton says. "I didn't stop it from being enforced that way after the bill was passed. And that same exact year, I voted for an anti-trespassing law that created a felony for entering the country illegally."

Paton asks: If he had objected to using the law to charge illegal immigrants, why would Thomas—the prosecutor at the center of the cases—endorse him?

"Obviously, it didn't bother Andy Thomas, because he endorsed me," says Paton, who has endorsed Thomas in his campaign for attorney general.

Brian Miller says Kelly and Paton represent exactly what's wrong with the Republican Party.

At the end of a February debate, Miller hammered Paton for representing the "brand of big-government Republicans that brought us into the mess we're in today," and Kelly for "being wrong on extremely important issues and showing an unwillingness to examine issues very closely," and for having a campaign that's "enabled by millions in stimulus money."

"On the one hand, you can accept the hollow echo of Jesse W. Bush," Miller said. "On the other hand, you can accept the hollow echo of Jonathan McPaton."

If that's the case, then Miller patterns himself after Congressman Ron Paul. In fact, after Paul's son, Rand Paul, won a U.S. Senate primary in May, Miller declared himself the "Rand Paul of CD 8."

Like both Pauls, Miller, 34, is all about constitutional limits on government. On matters such as repealing the Democratic health-care plan, pushing for privatization of Social Security and stopping cap-and-trade, Miller is on the same page as Paton and Kelly.

But Miller, an Air Force veteran who still trains pilots to fly A-10s at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base as a member of the Air Force Reserve, splits with them on solutions to Arizona's border problems.

All three candidates say that they want anyone who has entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas to be forced to return to their home countries and start a new paperwork process to enter the United States.

Both Kelly and Paton say that they would not consider legislation establishing guest-worker programs or reforming the immigration process until they're convinced the border is secured—even if that takes years.

For Kelly, security means a fence along all 2,000 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and more Border Patrol agents on the ground. Paton, meanwhile, has called for soldiers from every branch of the military—Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines—to join at least 6,000 National Guard troops to apprehend illegal border-crossers.

That's a shift for Paton, who last year told members of Congress that National Guard units were "very effective" when deployed in "an auxiliary capacity."

In that testimony, he expressed reservations about having soldiers on the border: "I don't think it's a good idea to have U.S. soldiers patrolling with M-16s and the rest," Paton said. "We need them elsewhere."

Paton now says that "the situation has changed—it's gotten significantly more dangerous now than it was then."

But Miller says it's a mistake to put soldiers on the border, because the apprehension of border-crossers should be handled as a law-enforcement matter by the Border Patrol.

"If you simply put the National Guard or the military on the border, you have a problem," Miller says. "You either leave them in perpetuity, resulting in a militarized border, which I find abhorrent, or you pull them off at some point, and you have the same problem come back."

He estimates that the cost of Kelly's proposed double-layered fence would run a quarter of a trillion dollars over 25 years.

Miller argues that the real solution is a guest-worker program that eliminates the financial incentive to enter the country illegally.

"We must have a market-based, legal immigration system," Miller says. "Unless we fix the problem, simply putting troops on the border is a Band-Aid solution."

Another key difference: the war in Afghanistan. Paton wants to send at least 10,000 more troops to Afghanistan, while Kelly says he'd support whatever Gen. David Petraeus will recommend. But Miller favors withdrawing the troops.

"If we went into Afghanistan to defeat al-Qaida, it basically no longer exists there," Miller says. "Why do we have 100,000 U.S. troops there? The answer is: We're nation-building. As a conservative, I do not believe the job of the United States military is to nation-build."

The other two candidates in the race are running low-budget campaigns. Andy Goss, a former Army sergeant who now works for a private contractor that trains soldiers, often offers comic relief on the stump. He jokes that he joined the Army "because I looked really good in camouflage" and that gun control "is hitting your target."

If elected, Goss promises to be a "blunt instrument" to stop the Obama agenda and suggests that lawmakers should take a 40 percent pay cut and live in barracks so they'll be less comfortable in Washington, D.C.

Jay Quick offers an entirely different perspective. Quick, who owns a custom-metal shop in the shadows of Interstate 10 near Prince Road, is making his second run in Congressional District 8; he first ran as an independent in 2006, capturing 2 percent of the vote.

Other than that brief period, Quick—who worked as geologist in the 1960s and ran businesses in the Tucson area before taking over his metal shop in the 1990s—has been a lifelong Republican, but he's dismayed by the tone of the GOP these days.

"There's a real sense of intimidation and bullying on both ends of the spectrum, which makes people afraid to even speak up to some extent," Quick says. "These people are out for blood. And until that changes, there's no hope of finding rational solutions to any of our problems."

More by Jim Nintzel

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