PHOENIX - Republican voters in southern Arizona's 8th Congressional District go to the polls Tuesday to choose who will face former Gabrielle Giffords aide Ron Barber in a special election to replace the wounded ex-congresswoman.
The four GOP candidates are battling in a snap election called after the Democrat resigned in January to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head she suffered in a mass shooting in Tucson a year earlier. She tapped her aide as her preferred replacement, and Barber has drawn strong financial support and no challengers in his party's primary.
That leaves the GOP foursome to duke it out in the special primary election, with scarce time to get their messages out to voters or collect money for ads, direct mail and other outreach efforts.
The four include 2010 Giffords opponent Jesse Kelly, a businessman and tea party favorite, state Sen. Frank Antenori, retired U.S. Air Force pilot and political newcomer Martha McSally, and businessman and broadcaster Dave Sitton.
All were on the campaign trail Saturday, trying their best to get enough voter support to move on to the general election on June 12.
No reliable polling exists in the district, which tilts Republican but has regularly elected moderates from both parties. It spans parts of Tucson and its suburbs, some of Pinal and Santa Cruz counties and all of Cochise County.
That may be an issue for whoever wins the Republican primary race. All four embrace strong conservative issues like enhanced border security before immigration reform, repeal of federal health care legislation and cuts to the size of federal government and of federal regulations.
Some saw Kelly as the early front-runner, since he has the name recognition from his 2010 race against Giffords, which he lost by just a few thousand votes.
But Sitton has collected and spent the most money since Giffords' resignation triggered the special election, followed by Kelly, McSally and Antenori
Even though he was weak in fundraising, there was plenty to buy radio ads, targeted mailer and man phone banks to call those voters who had not yet sent in early ballots as of Saturday, Antenori campaign manager Brett Mecum said. Early voting began March 22.
"We feel good about where we are in the race right now," Mecum said. "There's going to be two driving issues in this election - one is going to be jobs and the economy, and two is people want competence in government. That's what Frank brings to the table.
Mecum touted Antenori's work as a state lawmaker closing a $3 billion budget gap and cracking down on illegal immigration.
Sitton's press secretary said his decades as a visible presence in southern Arizona, including serving on boards and charity committees, give him a leg up. Jennifer Humphries said he's drawn broad support from the business community, and also has support of team party members. Humphries herself helped found the Tucson tea party.
"I guess the poll is April 17," Humphries said. "That's when we'll find out what the real numbers are. But we're feeling really confident."
McSally's campaign focused on getting her name and positions out to voters early enough to draw early voters, and then press for a good turnout on Tuesday. A strong broadcasting buy is helping, said her communications director, Sam Stone.
"We know we're likely to be down in the early ballots, but we think we've made it up," Stone said. "What we're seeing a lot with Martha is that she has a very broad appeal.
"I think with her, she has a little more reasonable approach," Stone said. "A lot of times it's not the conservative ideas, it how you present them. She doesn't had the baggage that a lot of baggage that the others have."
Kelly's campaign manager, John Ellinwood, said he believes his candidate's focus on lower taxes, a stronger economy and lowering gas prices by opening up more federal lands to exploration.
"Jesse is presenting his ideas as solutions to the issues that are facing the families of southern Arizona, and the results have been very positive," Ellinwood said.
He didn't predict victory for Kelly, but he came close.
"I'm just short of making a prediction," Ellingwood said Saturday. "We're feeling very good, very confident."
The other three candidates, however, thought they had a good chance.
"We know this is going to be close," said Stone, McSally's communications director. "Everyone is very positive of their candidates. I guess three people are going to be very disappointed on Election Day."
The 8th District has nearly 425,000 registered voters, with 159,000 Republicans, 134,000 Democrats and 128,000 independents. As of Friday, more than 73,000 early ballots had been cast in the race, with 39,753 of those on the Republican side. Barber, even though he faced no opposition, pulled more than 32,000 voters to the polls, according to the Green Valley News. Less than a thousand ballots came from independents.
The winner of the special general election will hold the seat until Giffords