The Starting Gate

The race to finish Gabrielle Giffords' term is formally under way

A half-dozen candidates are in the race to finish the term of Gabrielle Giffords, who stepped down from Congress in January to focus on her rehabilitation from a gunshot wound to the head suffered on Jan. 8, 2011.

Barring some kind of successful petition challenge, four Republicans will battle it out in an April 17 primary election for the chance to face Democrat Ron Barber and Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis.

The Republican candidates are Jesse Kelly, who narrowly lost to Giffords in 2010; state Sen. Frank Antenori, who ran for Congress in 2006 before winning a seat in the Arizona Legislature in 2008; sports broadcaster and marketing businessman Dave Sitton; and former Air Force fighter pilot and squadron commander Martha McSally.

Two other announced Republican candidates, John Lervold and Mark Koskiniemi, failed to turn in nominating petitions, which were due Monday, Feb. 27.

The Republican candidates have a short window of opportunity to introduce themselves to the voters in Congressional District 8, which includes SaddleBrooke, Oro Valley, Marana, central Tucson, Green Valley, Sierra Vista and much of rural Arizona in the southeast corner of the state. Early voting in the race begins on March 22.

Even as the Republican candidates reach out to the conservative voters who are likely to decide the primary, Barber is winning endorsements from moderate Republicans who could help generate crossover support from GOP voters and capture the independent voters who will likely decide the June 12 general election.

Barber, who had served as Giffords' district director since she took office in 2007, and was shot twice in the Jan. 8, 2011, shooting rampage, had already won the support of Tucson City Councilman Steve Kozachik.

But he's now picked up the support of former Tucson Mayor Bob Walkup, who is one of three honorary co-chairs of Barber's campaign.

Walkup says that Barber is "the best person for the job."

"He understands the issues; he understands Washington; he understands the common good; and he's a real good guy," Walkup said last week. "He'll represent all of the people in the district, and I like that."

Barber also grabbed endorsements from former Sahuarita Mayor Lynne Skelton, former Sierra Vista Mayor Bob Strain and Cochise County rancher and veterinarian Gary Thrasher, who are all crossing party lines to support Barber.

Skelton, who now serves as vice mayor on the Sahuarita Town Council, says that Barber understands the issues facing the district and "brings experience to the picture. He understands what's going to work and how to bring jobs to our area. And more than anything else, he's not a politician. ... Ron is a true public servant. He's solving problems and building consensus, and he wants to get stuff done."

The Congressional District 8 office has been "very, very responsive" to Sahuarita's needs, even in Giffords' absence, according to Skelton.

"You never got turned away," Skelton says. "You pick up the phone, and you could talk with someone in Congresswoman Giffords' office. ... If there's a problem or a concern, we could most definitely get results from her office."

Strain says that electing Barber would ensure continuity. He says the Congressional District 8 office has been responsive to Sierra Vista's concerns about supporting Fort Huachuca, protecting the local water supply and providing constituent service.

"In my opinion, Ron Barber is the only person who can offer the continuity of service through this bootstrap election we've got coming up," Strain says.

While the winner of the special election will complete Giffords' term in Congressional District 8, most of the candidates will also be gearing up for an election later this year in the new Congressional District 2, which covers much of the same turf as Congressional District 8.

But the new CD 2 has a smaller GOP edge than the current CD 8. The new CD 2 is 34.7 percent Republican, 34.2 percent Democrat, and 31.1 percent independent or other.

While the four GOP candidates in the CD 8 special election have all said they'd like to also run in CD 2 in the fall, Barber has not said whether he'll seek a full term later this year.

Several Democratic candidates are preparing runs in CD 2, including state Rep. Matt Heinz, state Sen. Paula Aboud and state Rep. Steve Farley.

A fourth candidate, Nan Stockholm Walden, is also expected to announce a run in the near future.

Walden, who earned a law degree at Stanford, is a former chief of staff for former U.S. senator Bill Bradley who continued working in Washington, D.C., during the 1990s. She now lives in Southern Arizona and owns a pecan grove near Sahuarita with her husband, Dick Walden.

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