With Gabrielle Giffords by his side, Ron Barber told a packed room of supporters Saturday that he'll need all their help to win the special election to complete her term.
"This is not going to be an easy election," Barber said to the crowd of about 400 people. "We believe we are going to have a very strong contender on the Republican side. We expect outside groups will come in and try to get this seat."
Though he's running unopposed in the Democratic primary and has Giffords' endorsement for the seat she stepped down from in late January, Barber is bracing for a stiff challenge from whoever emerges from the field of four Republicans.
Saturday's event - highlighted by Giffords' surprise appearance - capped off a week that had the man who never planned to run for office in full campaign mode.
Giffords asked Barber, her longtime district director, to run to complete her congressional term in District 8 after she resigned to focus on her recovery from being shot in the head Jan. 8, 2011. Barber, 66, was also seriously injured that day, taking bullets to the check and groin.
Giffords remains in Houston for therapy, and when she entered the room at Lodge on the Desert Saturday, the surprised crowd rose to its feet and cheered enthusiastically.
"Thank you very much," she said before sitting beside her husband, Mark Kelly. She did not take the podium to speak but Kelly did, recounting how Barber was the first person on Giffords' campaign in her initial run for Congress in 2006.
"Ron was behind Gabby 100 percent from the beginning," Kelly said, "and Gabby and I are going to be behind Ron 100 percent."
As the only Democrat running, Barber will avoid the rigors of a contested primary campaign and vote, which for Republican candidates Frank Antenori, Jesse Kelly, Martha McSally and Dave Sitton is scheduled for April 17.
Many pundits believe Giffords' endorsement makes Barber a favorite in the special election because of the good will she's earned in the community. But the candidate and his team aren't taking that for granted.
"We have a toss-up district and we expect a competitive race," said Barber spokesman Rodd McLeod, who worked on Giffords' campaigns in 2006 and 2010 and filled in for Barber while he recovered from his wounds.
Republicans dismissed the idea of letting Barber be a caretaker and waiting for the November election to choose Giffords' successor. They say Barber must prove he's the right person to represent the district in these tough economic times.
"Southern Arizona wants real representation, not a place holder," said Daniel Scarpinato, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Voters also want the chance to make a decision and have a choice; that's what an election is all about."
Asking for help
Barber has not yet decided if he'll run for a full term in the new Congressional District 2 later this year, but he's emphatic that he's no place holder. He said he wants to be a voice for Southern Arizona.
"I want to make sure this seat continues to be represented in a way that Congresswoman Giffords represented it," Barber said. "We need people to try to bring voters together to try to solve problems."
He's been traveling throughout CD 8, which covers a large chunk of Southeastern Arizona, asking for help, be it money, time or advice, McLeod said. Barber was in Green Valley Friday, in Tucson on Saturday and is to be in Cochise County today and Monday.
On Tuesday, he was in Washington D.C. at a fund-raising event hosted by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and attended by Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.
"Ron is not a politician, he's not someone who has spent his life preparing to run for office," McLeod said. "So this has all come on pretty suddenly."
Democratic political analyst Tom Volgy believes Barber is a heavy favorite in the special election. Voters appreciate Giffords' decision to step down, and they will support Barber because she endorsed him and he represents her policies, Volgy said.
The power of a "sentiment vote" is difficult to gauge, said Barbara Norrander, University of Arizona political science professor. "Whether or not there is a sentiment vote is something we don't have any evidence for and against," she said.
McLeod would not say how much money Barber's campaign has raised, but he said fundraising is going great. The first filing deadline with the Federal Election Commission for special election candidates is April 5.
"Obviously, campaigns are expensive," McLeod said. "In the last race against Congresswoman Giffords (2010), we saw 11 different independent expenditures run negative ads against us."
This time around, McLeod said there many groups that want to privatize Social Security and get rid of Medicare who will want to see Barber lose.
"So we are working hard to put together the kind of campaign that's going to be able to respond to those attacks," McLeod said.
Kelly, Giffords' husband, reminded supporters Saturday that the Republican who wins the primary will be a formidable opponent. He asked that all 400 people enlist others to get on board with Barber's campaign.
"This is not going to be easy, not by a long shot," Kelly said. "It's going to take a lot of effort, not only financial effort, but massive amounts of volunteers."
Money will be important, but in such a condensed election cycle, the "ground game" may be just as important, said Republican pollster Margaret Kenski.
"A lot is going to depend on their ability to get volunteers out doing work for them because I think this is going to be a lot of shoe leather, calls to likely voters and things like that," Kenski said. "It's organization. I don't think anyone has a whole lot of time to spend on fancy media."
Running unopposed in the primary will let Barber focus and save money for the general election on June 12, Volgy said. That gives him the "advantages of the incumbency without being an incumbent," Volgy said.
But not being in the primary puts a candidate in the shadows, largely ignored by the public as future competitors get time in the sun, UA professor Norrander said.
"If you are in a contested primary, you are spending money, but you're also getting a lot of free media because that's where the attention is," Republican pollster Kenski agreed. "It certainly is a trade off."
Issues at forefront
Barber will be challenged on all the issues Southern Arizonans care about in the special general election, and voters won't like what they learn, Scarpinato prdicted. The backing of Pelosi and Grijalva, who he characterized as two politicians who have hurt Arizona's economy, shows where Barber stands, Scarpinato said.
"Voters in Southern Arizona are really concerned about jobs and the economy, and they don't want someone running who is part of Washington," Scarpinato said. "They want somebody who will stand up to Washington … Southern Arizona doesn't want a rubber stamp on President Obama's policies. They want a check and balance."
Barber agreed that this election will be about issues. He said he'll work to create more jobs, especially clean jobs in industries such as solar. He also has vowed to protect Social Security and Medicare, support military veterans and help people avoid foreclosures.
He said many have told him they're glad he's running for Giffords' seat, but he said the seat doesn't belong to her.
At Saturday's fundraiser he turned to his former boss for her support.
"You would agree: It's not your seat. It is the people's seat. That's what we are going to talk about - what we can do to help the people of this region."
On StarNet: Read the transcripts of live chats with the Congressional District 8 candidates who accepted the Star's invitation to chat with readers at azstarnet.com/election
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org