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What to Draw from Gabby Giffords Special Election

Mike Coppola/Getty Images(TUCSON, Ariz.) -- Voters in southeastern Arizona are at the polls Tuesday in a special election to fill the seat vacated by Gabby Giffords' retirement.

The Democratic nominee, Ron Barber, has a very personal connection to Giffords. Not only is he Giffords’ former district director, but he was also shot in the leg and cheek in the assassination attempt on Giffords in January 2011.

Tea Party supporter and former Marine Jesse Kelly is the Republican nominee. Kelly narrowly lost his 2010 race against Giffords by 4,000 votes.

While a new poll out Monday showed Barber ahead of Kelly by 12 points, insiders on both sides say their polling shows the race much tighter. Many of those closest to the contest give Barber a narrow advantage.

A win by Barber would be more than just a victory for the extended “Giffords family,” it would be a psychological boost for a White House that has endured a rough couple of weeks. After all, this is not a slam-dunk Democratic district. McCain won this district in 2008, Bush carried it in 2004, and Republicans have a significant registration advantage here as well.

A Kelly win would provide another example of a Republican advantage over Democrats -- i.e., Wisconsin recall. Furthermore, it would undercut one of the Democrats’ main arguments for the fall campaign: that GOP support of Social Security and Medicare reform (like the Ryan budget) is politically toxic. Outside groups supporting Barber have pummeled Kelly with his own words on these entitlement programs. As the Arizona Daily Star reported: “Barber and Democrats remind voters daily that two years ago Kelly said he wanted to privatize and phase out Social Security and eliminate Medicare. They slam his pledge this go-round to protect the programs as a disingenuous trick.”

And, groups supporting Barber have not been shy about personally attacking Kelly either. An ad released by the pro-Democratic House Majority PAC showing Jesse Kelly referring to Giffords as “a hero of nothing” during their 2010 campaign was criticized for a lack of context.

For their part, Republicans have tried to link Barber to Obamacare and Nancy Pelosi -- two very unpopular topics in this part of the state. Even so, Barber’s lack of incumbency -- and the fact that he has literally distanced himself from both the president and Pelosi -- have helped insulate him against the attacks.

At the end of the day, Barber’s personal story, and the unrelenting negative attacks on Kelly by Democratic outside groups, will be the real story out of this special election.

Moreover, regardless of what happens, the new congressman will have to run again in the general election in November, this time in a new district that has a much more significant Democratic lean to it. As such, we should expect this district to be in Democratic hands one way or another come next January.

Polls close at 10 p.m. EST. Given the large percentage of the vote that has been cast absentee (the expectation is somewhere in the 55-60 percent range), there is some hope that a winner can be declared rather quickly.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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