October 25, 2006 - When Gabrielle Giffords appeared at her first debate on Oct 17, she came out with her dukes up.

Her opening statements weren't casual and introductory like her opponents. She took on a fierce tone, immediately addressed the issues and denounced her opponent.

In a coffee shop for a one-on-one interview two-days later, she still was serious on policy issues, but she seemed a bit more relaxed. But turn off the tape recorder and give her a bowl of oatmeal, and she's a new woman. She was easygoing and talked openly about troubling issues facing the country.

Giffords, a Democrat, is running for United States Congress in District 8. She's vying for an open seat held by Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe for 22 years

So not only is this race important to her and other Arizona Democrats, it's important to the national Democratic Party -- a party desperately trying to break the Republican trifecta in Washington and take back the majority in Congress.

No wonder she's so serious.

With an extensive staff, a list of 1,000 volunteers and more than a $1 million dollars to spend in this election, Giffords is trying to keep Republican opponent Randy Graf at a distance in the polls.

Giffords has maintained a lead over Graf in polls since the primary election, though some polls suggest the lead is shrinking. The latest Reuters/Zogby poll puts Giffords with an eight-point lead on Graf.

Giffords is selling herself as a Democrat who's tough and realistic on immigration, and who can also work nicely with Republicans.

"If a Republican bill is a good bill, then OK, vote for it," Giffords said at her first Congressional debate at Pima Community College. "Bills are not good or bad because they are Republican or Democrat. A good idea is a good idea."

Born and raised in Tucson, Giffords, 36, commonly tells the story of how she was "called back to Arizona."

After graduating from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., Giffords won a Fulbright Scholarship to spend a year in Chihuahua, Mexico. She lived in a Mennonite community, a pacifist religious group that doesn't use running water or electricity.

"I learned a lot about farming and ranching," she said. "I also learned about the tipping point, the point when highly religious communities tend to break away and move into the mainstream."

Soon after she got a Master's Degree in regional planning from Cornell University. The call came about a year after that for her to come back to Tucson and take over her family's business, El Campo Tire. She ran the company for about four years until she sold it to Goodyear Tire.

Back in Tucson, Giffords ran for state Legislature, serving a term in the House and one in the Senate, until 2005.

"To me, it's about a moderate versus an extreme," said Katie Bolger, a Democratic election coordinator for District 26 state races.

Bolger said she's not involved with the Giffords campaign, but as a Democrat, is pleased to see her party nominate a strong candidate.

Campaign spokesman Jonathon Neal said, "Really, Giffords is a fiscal conservative."

Giffords' campaign platform calls for raising the federal minimum wage and reducing the federal debt. She said Congress could bring down the debt by reducing tax cuts to America's wealthiest one percent and by eliminating corporate tax breaks to the oil and gas and the pharmaceutical industries.

She said she wouldn't support a Congressional pay raise until Congress has balanced the budget.

But she supports earmarking - funds legislators tag on to bills to pay for specific projects, usually to benefit their constituents - although she said they need to be more transparent, and she doesn't support social security reform.

But Giffords said her "Line in the Sand" Medicare and Social Security TV ad is really more about pointing out the "stark contrast" between her and her opponent.

"I will not vote to privatize Social Security," she said. "I will not vote to gamble away benefits."

Giffords said the bottom line is that government has to keep its promises to seniors and pay them the money owed to them.

Although many of the top economists in the country - and Graf, who called the Social Security system a "fiscal train wreck we can see coming" - say when the baby boom generation is in full swing the government will not be able to sustain social security benefits unless it raises taxes or cuts benefits. Giffords see it more optimistically.

"The first thing we have to do is quit taking the money away that is going into Social Security currently," she said. "It's a misnomer to say, 'Oh, we're running out of money. We're not going to be able to sustain social security money.'"

Giffords said the money is disappearing because Congress is not protecting it.

But she admitted that by 2017 more money would be coming out than going in.

"There does need to be some changes," she said, although she couldn't say what kind of changes she would support. "But let me be clear, I will not privatize."

For independent voter and Northwest resident Audrey Emerson, District 8 is "so, so fortunate" to have an intelligent option for Congress.

Emerson said she was registered with the Republican Party for 30 years, but became an independent after becoming disgusted with national politics. Now, she's so keen on Giffords, she's phone banking and visiting the headquarters three times a week.

"I feel this is so critical," Emerson said. "I feel it's time for a change. I feel so strongly, I don't want to be sorry on Nov. 8 if I just sit home and twiddle my thumbs."

Emerson said she wants to deal with moderates with a real message, and she said she's found that in Giffords.

Securing the border, one of the most talked-about issues in the campaign, is important to Emerson. But she said Graf's idea of "just throwing them all out" is wrong.

Graf wants to secure the border with beefed up security and more money, but does not support a guest worker program like Giffords. He has called the plan Giffords supports "amnesty."

Giffords said she supports the same bill President George W. Bush, Sen. Jon Kyl and Sen. John McCain support. It's the immigration bill not getting any traction in the Senate.

The bill calls for cracking down on employers who hire illegal immigrants and a guest worker plan for 1.5 million farm workers, and an additional 200,000 temporary visas a year. It also allows eventual citizenship for some immigrants who have been in the country if they pay fines, back taxes and learn to speak English.

Graf asked Giffords at the Pima Community College debate if those guest workers would then be eligible for Arizona's state healthcare plan for those at the poverty level.

Giffords said no.

"Guest workers are not entitled to the privileges of citizens," Giffords said. "They come here do seasonal work … and go home."

Giffords said if they want to buy health insurance it's up to them. And if they get sick?

"The same thing that happens when anyone else that doesn't have health insurance and gets sick and need to go to the doctor," she said.

Donna Branch Gilby, the chair for the Pima County Democratic Party, isn't really involved in Giffords' campaign.

But Gilby said she's run into Giffords at a few fundraisers - one attended by celebrity musician Burt Bacharach.

"She's tireless," Gilby said. "She's everywhere."

Along the campaign trail, it has been tough to nail Giffords down anywhere in the Northwest part of the district. She disappointed some attendants by not showing up for a debate in Sun City Vistoso. One couple questioned why they bothered to come after realizing she wasn't going to be there.

Giffords shooed away suggestions that she hasn't been up in the Northwest, saying she is "constantly" there for "countless house parties, forums and meetings."

But Giffords has become fairly high profile. A call to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in Washington and the mentioning of a race in Arizona where a Democrat might win sparked an eager communications coordinator to immediately ask, "Are you talking about Giffords?"

Kate Bedingfield, spokesperson for the DCCC, said Giffords is one of the best Democrats running in the nation.

"We feel extremely confident she'll be coming to Congress next year," said Bedingfield, who specializes in races in the western United States.

Bedingfield said Giffords has handled her campaign entirely on her own and has proven highly capable of raising a lot of money.

Giffords has raised just over $1.1 million, with 25 percent of it from outside Arizona.

"That's a very strong showing," Bedingfield said. "She has been a very strong fundraiser."

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan research group that tracks money in elections, individuals have contributed the most, with just about $98,000 coming from PACs. Her biggest donors by industry are retired folks, followed closely by lawyers and law firms, which have contributed $100,076 to her campaign.

For Tucson residents Jean Saliman and Janet Parkhurst, who attended the Pima Community College debate, the most important issue in this election is the Iraq war.

"(Republicans) are making it immigration, but it is Iraq," Saliman said. "It's bleeding us dry and it's hurting us overseas. We've lost our prestige."

"And now with the legitimized torture," Parkhurst added, referencing the controversial Military Commissions Act.

Bush signed the bill on Oct. 17, allowing secret CIA prisons, harsh interrogations and military tribunals for suspected terrorists.

"And McCain has thrown himself down the river," Parkhurst said, expressing her new distrust of the Arizona Republican who she used to favor. McCain supported the bill.

On the Iraq war, Giffords said she wants to bring the troops home.

"We took our eye off the ball," Giffords said at the debate. "We should've stayed focused on Osama bin Laden, focused on working with our international allies and going after the terrorists."

Giffords said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld needs to go, and she doesn't support permanent bases or a lavish embassy in Iraq.

"What we're doing now is not working," she said. "The reality is the situation in Iraq isn't going well."

For the next two weeks, the Giffords campaign will keep trying to convince Southern Arizonans not to vote for another Republican.

Next Wednesday, she'll get a little boost from another Democrat who two years ago tried to convince Americans of that very same thing.

Former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards will visit with Democratic candidates and supporters at El Presidio Park downtown, hoping to help keep the Democratic momentum going and perhaps prevent another loss like his.

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