TUCSON, Ariz. -- In the race for Southern Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, the Democrat has long been considered the likely victor. But now the Republican contender has closed the gap, leaving the seat up for grabs. This race is falling to undecided voters -- and Democrats, it seems, weren't expecting it.
Five months ago, Democrat Ron Barber handily won the special election to finish out Gabrielle Giffords’ term. Giffords retired after an assassination attempt one year earlier. Barber was her district director at the time and was injured in that attack. It’s something that is sometimes mentioned on the campaign trail, but it hasn’t surfaced in his own TV ads until just recently.
"After nearly losing his life, Ron Barber demonstrated his resilience. Small business owner and district director for Gabrielle Giffords," the ad says.
Sympathy and affection for Giffords can only propel Barber so far, however and now --largely because the challenger is likeable -- the race has grown close and for Democrats, maybe a little too close.
Their own polls showed their candidate with a 14-point lead a month before the election, but Republican contender Martha McSally has different polls showing they’re tied at 47 percent each. And it’s close enough that the Republican National Committee recently poured $330,000 into McSally’s television campaign.
David Steele is a political strategist in Tucson. He says because Barber has only held the office for five months this race is unpredictable.
"He hasn’t really been in office long enough to demonstrate what kind of Congressman he will be, so are they going to want to give him another chance?” Steele said.
That’s one question. The second is, when will these candidates stop sabotaging their own campaigns?
Both candidates have had their share of gaffes in this race. Barber called the Republican Party a "bunch of white guys," forgetting, apparently that his challenger is not only a woman but the nation's first female combat fighter pilot. And he wasn’t helped with this ad put out by the House Majority PAC:
NARRATOR: “Wall Street and Martha McSally. Here’s what they’ve got cooking. McSally wants to privatize Social Security.”
This ad was set against a backdrop of recipe cards and grocery bags on a kitchen counter, all to a childish score. A woman's place, it seemed to suggest, was in the kitchen.
McSally lashed back at the ad and then turned it into a broader discussion of the war on women:
"You want to talk about a war on women?" she said during a debate last week. "Walk in my shoes down the streets of Kabul. Walk in my shoes down the streets of Riyadh. Where women have to be covered up, where they’re stoned. Where they’re honor killed if they’ve been raped.”
But she’s also put her own foot in her mouth when she said recently she admired and emulated former Giffords. Giffords’ husband, Mark Kelly, wasn’t pleased. He called her claim outrageous.
The close race has both candidates reaching beyond their political parties for voters in this new district. McSally has been emphasizing her longstanding battle for women’s issues, in and out of the military. And Barber has been talking up a tough stance on border security and jobs. He wants more Drug Enforcement and Border Patrol agents on the border with Mexico.
So in the end, this vote could fall to people like Tea Christianson. She's one of the estimated 5 percent of voters who haven't decided yet. The Tucson native has always voted Republican. This year, she says, she’s still researching both candidates.
"I think we’re in a country now where people do a lot of talk and don’t walk the talk," she said.
Getting voters like Christianson, who are not easily swayed by political platforms, might decide the vote Tuesday.