TUCSON Thousands of voters turned out in southern Arizona on Tuesday to pick a replacement for former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords who stepped down in January to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head.
Ron Barber, Giffords' hand-picked successor and a former aide faces Jesse Kelly, a construction project manager and Iraq War veteran, in the Arizona contest that has gained broad national attention.
Giffords, a Democrat, was shot a year earlier during a meet-and-greet event outside a Tucson grocery store. The shooting killed six people and injured 13 others, among them Barber, who was shot in the face and thigh.
After accompanying Giffords and her husband, Mark Kelly, to vote at a polling station in Tucson, Barber told reporters he felt "rejuvenated and invigorated" by the campaign.
"I'm confident that we have put every bit of energy that we had into this campaign," he said. "Hopefully, today the people of southern Arizona will hire me for this job and I'm ready to go to work first thing tomorrow morning."
Barber focused his campaign on rebuilding the middle class, protecting Medicare and Social Security, bolstering veteran's services and reforming the nation's immigration efforts. He wants more agents at the Arizona-Mexico border, not miles away.
Barber also wants the nation to be more energy independent, and Tucson to become the "solar capital of the country".
Kelly, 30, came within 2 percentage points of unseating three-term incumbent Gifford in November 2010, in the southern Arizona district where Republicans now hold a 25,000-voter edge. Independents also play a big role, accounting for roughly 30 percent of registered voters.
A conservative Iraq War veteran, he is campaigning on job creation, lowering taxes and strengthening the economy. He is a strong advocate for building a double-layered fence on the Mexico border. Kelly was not immediately available for comment.
Kelly has criticized the Obama administration's healthcare reforms and job creation efforts. He maintained that Barber would blindly follow along if elected.
Analysts and polls indicate Barber had a strong edge ahead of the vote.
A poll released on Monday by Public Policy Polling showed Barber leading Kelly by 53 percent to 41 percent. The survey polled 1,058 likely voters over the weekend and has a margin of error of 3 points.
The contest has attracted big dollars, with independent political committees pumping $2.2 million into the race, according to the Federal Election Commission. The latest filings show Barber with $390,000 in available cash and Kelly with $83,000.
After the special election, voters will head to the polls again in November to elect a representative for a full two-year term.
Giffords was seen as a rising Democratic star in the U.S. House of Representatives. The winner of Tuesday's election in the Tucson-based 8th Congressional District will serve out the six months left in her term.
Limping heavily, Giffords briefly waved to reporters and said, "Good morning. How are you?" as she went to cast her vote.
She has struggled to regain speech and movement in her right arm and leg since the shooting. After casting her vote, she left without taking questions.
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Carol Bishopric and Leslie Gevirtz)