PHOENIX - I'm going to go out on a limb here, but I do not think Democrat Rob Barber is unbeatable in the CD8 special election to select a replacement for Gabrielle Giffords.
Barber is an ex-aide to the former congresswoman, who has wholeheartedly backed his campaign, which to most appears to be on the way to certain victory. Barber, like Giffords, was shot by Jared Loughner in Tucson. And since the attack, Giffords and all things Giffords have been treated with nothing but kindness and sympathy.
But I am not certain that will translate to voters immediately identifying with Barber and handing him a congressional seat without questions. I think Republican Jesse Kelly, who has already proven himself capable of pulling off upset victory, is not to be underestimated.
From the view at the capitol in Phoenix, Kelly appeared to be an unknown right-wing hardliner destined to lose against primary challenger Jonathan Paton in 2010. That thought was crushed on primary election night. Months later, a Paton campaigner summed up to me what had happened: "No matter where we went, who we talked to, Kelly had already been there."
Onlookers were again stunned to see Kelly come quite close to unseating Giffords in the general election.
Four-thousand votes separated the pair, and it can be said that Kelly could have pulled off a victory if Libertarian Steven Stoltz didn't attract 11,000 votes.
Kelly, in the midst of early balloting in CD8, isn't bothering to advertise his candidacy on television, leaving observers to speculate that his lead is comfortable enough for him to start eying his general election contest against Barber.
To date, Barber's most significant announcement has been that he will run for what will be become CD2, which, to voters, makes him more than a placeholder candidate only intending to fill his former boss's seat for several months.
That difference is substantial, and although national Democrats are pushing the notion that Arizona will be "in play" for Obama and Democrats in 2012, the reality is that Republicans took supermajorities in both houses at the Legislature and won every single statewide office hands down – victories no doubt inspired by deep voter unease with the Obama administration and Democrat priorities.
The survival of Giffords – and Barber, who was also seriously injured in the Tucson attack – was and is remarkable. But voters will still have the last word when it comes to what ideas and policy objectives they want in a candidate.