By Brad Poole
TUCSON, Arizona--A conservative Republican, who narrowly lost to wounded former Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords in her final election to Congress in 2010, is the favorite in a special primary on Tuesday to complete her unexpired term.
Jesse Kelly, a construction project manager and Iraq War veteran, is among four candidates who will face off to be the Republican Party's pick to run in the special election to serve out Giffords' term.
Giffords, a Democrat, stepped down in January to focus on her recovery a year after she was shot through the head at a congressional meet-and-greet event outside a Tucson grocery store in a mass shooting that left six dead people and six others injured.
Giffords' former aide, Ron Barber, who was also wounded at the event, is running unopposed as the Democratic Party candidate in the June 12 special election.
Kelly, who came within 2 percentage points of unseating Giffords two years ago and has the highest name recognition among the Republican primary field, is running on a platform of job creation, lowering taxes and cheap energy.
"What we're hearing on the campaign trail is that our statements on lower taxes, lower gas prices and more American energy are resonating with southern Arizona's voters," Kelly, a former Marine, told Reuters.
"We can accomplish all of those things, if we get government out of the way," he added.
Also running for the Republican nomination are Arizona Senator Frank Antenori; Dave Sitton, a University of Arizona broadcaster, and Martha McSally, the first American woman pilot to fly combat missions.
Antenori, who rose to power among the state's conservative Republican leaders after his election to the state House in 2008, believes a strong stance on Mexico border security will favor him.
The district spawned the Minutemen civilian border watch movement and was where a rancher, Robert Krentz, was shot by suspected illegal border crossers two years ago. No arrests were made.
Antenori called himself the only "border hawk" in the race, adding, "I'll take that message to Washington."
Giffords served for six years, replacing Jim Kolbe, an openly gay, social moderate, who held the office for 22 years.
While Kelly's conservative posture might serve him well in the primary, local Democratic Party leaders believe it could hinder him in the general election in June.
"In a moderate district, those (conservative) candidates don't do as well in general elections," said Jeff Rogers, chairman of the Pima County Democratic Party.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer called the special election in January after Giffords resigned to focus on her recovery.
After the June 12 election for the seat to complete Giffords' term, voters will head to the polls again in November to elect a representative for a full two-year term.
The redrawn District 2 encompasses most of Giffords' old district. Four Republicans and five Democrats, including Kelly and Barber, have announced they will seek the seat.
Money will be a factor. The candidates' most recent filings show Kelly had spent all but about $10,000 of $222,817 he has raised, and Sitton had spent about half of $238,721 raised. McSally had spent about $90,000 of $132,807 raised.
Records show Antenori's campaign has spent about $4,000 more than the $56,555 it has taken in, although he said he would file an amendment that will show a different picture. He cited accounting errors for the deficit.
Barber has spent $85,000 of $549,133, though he could face stiff financial opposition in November, against Kelly, his likely opponent.
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Christopher Wilson)
Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for Restrictions.