By Russell Berman - 02/02/12 10:25 AM EST
President Obama is eyeing Arizona as one of the few Republican states he might flip in November, but to do that he might need the help of its brightest star: former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D).
Whether Giffords will lend her considerable clout to the president’s reelection campaign remains an open — and exceedingly delicate — question.
Democrats in Arizona say there is no doubt that if Giffords became involved in Obama’s campaign, she could boost his chances of capturing a state that gave its 10 electoral votes to favorite son Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008. McCain won it comfortably, by 8.5 points.
“Gabby Giffords campaigning with anybody could help. Anybody,” said Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), who heads the House Democrats’ campaign arm.
Yet with Giffords headed back to Houston to continue her rehabilitation, it’s a topic the Obama campaign is unlikely to broach with her and her husband, Mark Kelly, for several months.
“As long as it does not interfere with her recovery, it would be great. Not even great — spectacular,” said Barry Dill, a Democratic strategist in Arizona. “It cannot hurt, can only help the president’s chances.”
The Obama campaign did not comment for this story, and several Democrats in Arizona or with ties to Giffords insisted on speaking anonymously when discussing her possible involvement in the campaign.
“She’s by far the most powerful political brand we’ve had in this state in a long time,” said one Arizona Democrat. “I’m sure the president’s campaign would be thrilled to have her involved but would totally understand if she wanted to stay out of the partisan fray.”
Up to this point, the Democrat said, “everyone’s been pretty hands-off.”
An Arizona colleague and friend of Giffords, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D), said it was too soon to know if she would be involved in the campaign.
“How can you predict that? I don’t know,” he said.
Grijalva said Giffords could be helpful in southern Arizona, where the Democratic base is. “I think Gabby could be very effective there and statewide because of the goodwill she enjoys right now,” he said.
A number of factors would weigh in the decision for Giffords and for the Obama campaign.
First and foremost, Democrats said, is her health. Giffords stepped down from her House seat only after realizing that her physical recovery had not progressed enough for her to devote herself full-time to the job. In an interview with ABC News last week, Kelly said that while Giffords’s cognitive ability was “100 percent,” her speaking skills were not. “The thing she really struggles with is just the communication,” he said. “Not the understanding of language, but the transmission part.”
If she were well enough to campaign with Obama, even in a non-speaking role, Giffords would then have to decide whether to involve herself in a hard-fought presidential campaign. The shooting that wounded Giffords and killed six others prompted widespread calls for bipartisanship, and through her recovery Giffords has become a symbol transcending party politics.
Her brief exchanges with Obama in the past year have been emotional moments. Shortly after the shooting, the president traveled to Tucson to deliver a call for unity that became one of the best-received speeches of his presidency. He brought many in the University of Arizona audience to tears when he revealed that shortly after his visit to Giffords’s hospital room, “Gabby opened her eyes for the first time.”
And when Giffords returned to Washington last week to attend Obama’s State of the Union address as one of her last official acts in Congress, she and the president shared a lengthy embrace in the well of the House. Giffords beamed as Obama hugged and gently rocked her from side to side.
Prior to the Tucson tragedy, however, Giffords had cultivated her political independence and tacked to the center on issues like immigration and border security to win a tough reelection fight. After Democrats lost the House, Giffords was one of 19 Democrats to vote against Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) for Speaker.
In his ABC interview, Kelly was asked if Giffords would stand alongside Obama if he came to campaign in Arizona in the fall.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It depends on her schedule. Right now she’s spending a lot of time in rehab, pretty much five to six days a week. In time it’ll go down. I imagine if their schedules intersect, she’d certainly have the opportunity to do that.”
Obama traveled to Arizona in one of his first stops following his State of the Union address, in what some viewed as a signal of the importance the campaign is placing on the state in his reelection campaign. Democratic operatives have said the Obama campaign would have made a bigger push for Arizona in 2008 had its senior senator not been leading the Republican ticket. The last Democrat to win the state was President Clinton in 1996. Giffords did not appear with Obama during his visit last week, which made waves for a tarmac clash between the president and Arizona’s conservative governor, Jan Brewer (R).
The state’s hard-line immigration law has divided voters, and Democrats view the increasing number of Hispanic voters there as a potential opportunity to make inroads. Yet others are skeptical that Obama can make a credible run in Arizona at a time when his electoral map is shrinking, not expanding. Gallup reported on Tuesday that Obama’s approval rating in Arizona during 2011 was just below 40 percent, increasing doubts about his viability there.
A critical player in the decision is likely to be Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), one of Giffords’s closest friends in Congress, who is also chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.
Giffords’s level of involvement in the race to succeed her in the House could signal whether she intends to engage in the national campaign this fall. Kelly has said Giffords wants “a moderate like her” to win her seat and suggested she could make an endorsement. The 8th district is a swing district, making her endorsement potentially crucial in the race.
“Gabby and her team have two focuses right now: one, her continued recovery, and two, a Democrat to succeed her,” said Israel, coming off a visit to the state.
Arizona is also the site of a competitive Senate race, which could pit two friends of Giffords, Democrat Richard Carmona and Rep. Jeff Flake (R), against each other. While Giffords would be expected to endorse the Democrat, she is close to Flake, who sat next to her during Obama’s State of the Union address last week.