WASHINGTON - The shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in January has left Democrats in Arizona without a candidate for next year's U.S. Senate race, even though party officials in Washington have declared the state a tremendous opportunity to pick up a seat.
Giffords would be the unquestionable favorite to represent the Democrats if she were able to run. As she undergoes therapy to recover from the January shooting, an alternative candidate has yet to emerge - in part, because of the uncertainty surrounding her political future.
"All of our hopes and faith were geared toward her," said Andrei Cherny, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party. "Because of what happened in Tucson, I think people are now thinking through the decision themselves."
Some Democrats said the lack of an alternative at this stage is a worrisome sign that Democrats won't field a strong challenger against the GOP nominee, most likely to be Republican U.S. Rep. Jeff Flake. Incumbent Republican Jon Kyl is retiring after three terms in the Senate.
"We're stumbling around with names nobody knows," said U.S. Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz. "We're left with second tiers, and that's too bad, because I don't think Flake should have a free ride, and he's beatable."
Grijalva said he believes that time is drawing near for the Giffords camp to say whether she will run for the Senate. He made clear he had no intention of seeking the seat.
"There has been a deference and I think appropriately so," Grijalva said. "Now, I think it's kind of important to find out what their decision is going to be, because the more time that goes by, the lower the tier of candidates gets. Formidable people are going to defer to Gabby, and that's appropriate, but like I said, at some point, some decisions have to be made."
Privately, some Democrats are pessimistic that her recovery will progress to the point she will run for the Senate. They view a run for her congressional seat as a more likely alternative.
Jim Pederson, the former chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, said Giffords has plenty of time to decide and could win the Senate race even if she waited until 2012 before entering.
"It can certainly wait until next year. If she were perceived in terms of her recovery to be a viable candidate, I think she could raise significant money overnight. She could conceivably wait another nine or 10 months, I think," Pederson said.
Pederson acknowledged that her possible candidacy may be scaring off other Democratic candidates.
Indeed, Pederson said he believes a Giffords candidacy would be so strong that any Democrats who jumped into the field now would probably step aside if she did get in.
Grijalva said it would be unreasonable to ask a Democratic candidate to enter the race as a potential placeholder.
"This is Arizona. This is hand-to-hand combat from this point forward," he said. "Once you're in the fight, you cannot step out."
Giffords has made remarkable progress in the last five months, with neurosurgeon Dr. Dong Kim describing it as "almost miraculous." Still, she remains a shadow of her former self.
Pia Carusone, her chief of staff, told the Arizona Republic last week that Giffords can express her basic wants and needs, but has difficulty stringing together sentences to verbalize more complex thoughts and feelings. Giffords, she said, relies heavily on hand gestures and facial expressions to communicate.
"She is borrowing upon other ways of communicating. Her words are back more and more now, but she's still using facial expressions as a way to express. Pointing. Gesturing," Carusone said.
The description matches what experts expect from someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury. Often, such patients can be easily disoriented, have trouble prioritizing. suffer from some memory loss and have difficulty recognizing people. Some have difficulty doing several tasks at the same time.
Most cognitive recovery occurs in the first six months to a year after an injury, though it becomes less noticeable as time progresses. In the second year, progress drops sharply.
Carusone said it is too early to say whether Giffords will resume her position in Congress. She says they have until May 2012 to decide.
The staff also released photographs of Giffords on Sunday. The photos show her with shorter, darker hair but few signs she suffered a gunshot wound to the head. The timing coincides with plans to release Giffords from the hospital later this month or in early July.
Democratic officials in Washington and Phoenix stressed that it's still quite early in the election cycle. Cherny said he had talked to several potential candidates interested in running, some currently in politics and others viewed as civic and business leaders.
"If we go into the fall and we still don't have a candidate, people will start getting anxious. I think people understand that we still have the summer to have candidates start stepping forward," Cherny said.
Pederson, who ran and lost to Kyl in 2006, said several factors are behind the lack of candidates so far.
"I think it's the perceived strength of Representative Flake. It's also very difficult to raise money in this economic environment," Pederson said. "Plus, over the last several years, we have not been able to develop a bullpen of candidates that could take on higher office. I do think that is an anomaly and not reflective of where the state is going politically."