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The Totally Random Primary Night Encounter With Mr. Gabby Giffords

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By Marin Cogan, GQ

Just before 10 p.m. last night in Grand Rapids, at the hotel where Rick Santorum was getting ready to deliver his Michigan primary concession speech, I left the grand ballroom to look for a friend. I made my way down a spiral staircase to a lounge framed in palm trees and lacquered wood and anchored by a circular, amber-hued bar, and when I walked in, I spotted a face we've all come to recognize in the last year: bald round dome, with a blond mustache and intense blue eyes. It was Mark Kelly, newly retired astronaut, husband of the nation's most beloved former member of Congress, Gabrielle Giffords. He was sitting alone at the bar.


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An image of Kelly holding Giffords' hand beside her hospital bed became instantly iconic last year; he was featured on magazine covers and was the subject of a Diane Sawyer segment watched (and wept over) by more than 13 million people. Tonight, though, he was just a guy in town on business, watching election night returns in Michigan and Arizona, the state that he and Gabby still consider home.


Kelly is in town just by happenstance. He's here to give a speech to Fifth Third Bank, though he isn't entirely sure yet what he's going to say. "I showed up here at 1 [p.m.] and somebody's like, 'Santorum is here tonight.' And I'm like 'Wow,'" he tells me.


He is watching the election night results with a sort of bemused detachment; he thinks Santorum seems like a nice guy but isn't sure how he could win.


I ask how Gabby is doing. "She's doing pretty well," he says. "I think with more time she could really be back."


Even before Giffords resigned from Congress earlier this year, there was plenty of speculation about whether Kelly would run for her seat. "It's not my time either," he tells me. "I got my arm twisted a bunch." Will it ever be his time? "I don't know," he says. "You never know."


He and Giffords are currently living in Houston for her rehab, but Giffords has deep roots in Tucson. "At some point we will go back," he says.


At one point, he politely notes that we are watching Rick Santorum's concession speech on TV as the real thing unfolds a floor above us. We can hear the cheers on a 6-second delay. It's all a little strange. "This is your job," he says, laughing.


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I briefly leave Kelly and dutifully go upstairs long enough to hear Santorum say, "Do we believe in the smart and elite in this country to manage us or do you believe in free people and a free economy?" This sounds familiar. I head back downstairs.


Kelly's congressman is Ron Paul, so I ask what he thinks of his representative. He only says that Paul has "delivered a lot of babies."


A blond woman approaches asking for an autograph. "Thank you," she says. "What you have done, you have done more than medicine could ever do. Thank you, sir, thank you." Just as I'm asking if that ever gets old, a young man approaches.


"Mr. Giffords, is that right?" he asks.


"Close," Kelly says, introducing himself.


"Ohhh," the guy says. "Who's Mark Kelly?"


Kelly laughs and says he's Mrs. Giffords' husband. "I get the Mr. Giffords thing a couple of times a week. I think some people just assume that's my last name. We had that whole debate before we got married, the name debate." He says he didn't want her to take his name, she had already established her identity and it was worth maintaining.


Another fan comes over and asks the husband of the most famous former Democratic congresswoman in the country to sign a Rick Santorum poster.


"Did you just sign a Rick Santorum poster?" I ask.


"She asked me to!" he says. "I couldn't say no!"


Talk turns again to his potential political career. "People keep asking if I am going to go into politics. What would I want to do that for? Unless you can get to the point where you can really make a difference and somebody else can't do whatever you happen to be running for," he says. "I think it's not a decision you make lightly."


Kelly has an early call time for his speech so it's time to turn in. Shortly after 11 p.m., he pays his tab and heads up to his room.


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