Democrat Ron Barber made the jump from congressional aide to temporary fill-in congressman. But to complete the journey and claim a full term of his own he must first withstand a challenge from Republican Martha McSally - a former Air Force fighter pilot who has him in her sights.
Barber won the June 12 special election in the old Congressional District 8 to complete former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords' term, which covers much of the same turf as the new CD2. McSally finished second on the GOP side of the special primary for CD8 last spring, before re-emerging to claim the nomination for the full term in August.
Barber and McSally each contend their respective résumés, life experiences and careers as public servants trump the other's.
With more than a half century in Tucson, Barber, 66, says he understands what's important to the community. He was Giffords' district director from 2007 until her resignation. Before that, he worked 32 years at the Arizona Division of Developmental Disabilities, including as state director, and co-owned a small business with his wife.
"I know this district and the people in it better than I think any other candidate on the ballot," Barber said. "I don't have to guess or wonder what it is that people in this district have on their minds and what's bothering them."
McSally, 46, said a person's time in the district shouldn't be the end-all, be-all when judging congressional candidates. She said the leadership and moral courage she demonstrated during her 26-year career in the Air Force set her up to be successful in Congress.
She was the Air Force's first woman to fly in combat and first woman to command a fighter squadron in combat. She also successfully sued the Pentagon for requiring women serving in Saudi Arabia to wear abayas, or traditional black Muslim cloaks, off-base. She said the practice was offensive to her as a Christian.
"You have a contrast between a leader and a follower; a commander and a staffer; a pioneer and a bureaucrat," McSally said. "This is about leadership. This is about who is going to go to Washington, D.C., and get things done."
Barber said he respects McSally's service in the Air Force, but that the top-down leadership used in the military doesn't translate to the civilian arena. He said his leadership style - a collaborative, servant leader who seeks input from constituents - is much better suited to being a member of Congress.
McSally downplays the hierarchy in the military, saying a good leader in the Air Force must know how to bring people of different backgrounds and perspectives together to accomplish the mission. That, she said, is what she would do as a congresswoman.
Barber has the advantage of incumbency, albeit for only a few months, is flush with campaign cash and inherits the good will from Giffords' supporters.
He is also competing in a more favorable district. The new CD2 has just a 2-point Republican advantage in registered voters, compared with the 6-point spread in the old district.
Unlike in the CD8 special election, Barber has not had to deal with a flood of money from outside political groups - at least not yet. The National Republican Congressional Committee spent $1 million in the special election, but it has yet to spend a dime on this race.
NRCC leaders speak highly of McSally, but the organization put its money into CD1 and CD9.
Born and raised in Rhode Island, McSally joined the Air Force straight out of high school with the goal of making her late father proud.
Her career brought her to Southern Arizona in 1994 for A-10 pilot training at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base. She has been enamored with the weather and outdoor activities in the area ever since.
"I realized that you don't have to have a winter if you don't want," said McSally, laughing.
Since that first stint at Davis-Monthan, McSally has lived here for about 10 years between assignments elsewhere. She bought a house in Tucson in 1994, and bought land in Elgin in 2006.
After retiring from the Air Force as a colonel in 2010, she moved to Germany to become a professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall Center. She moved back last January to make a run in the CD8 special election, saying she felt "called" to pursue public office.
She's heard the whispers about her being a carpetbagger, but said the questions about her roots and investment here are a distraction to shift the conversation from talking about who is best suited for Congress. She's happy to list the numerous community-service projects she's been involved with and her community accolades, such as being a past recipient of the Tucson YWCA Women on the Move Award.
"This is my adult home, if you can have one in the military," McSally said. "My closest friends are here. My neighbors are like family to me. My church is here. My heart is in this community."
McSally still commonly uses military lingo, often referring to her goal of getting to Congress as her current mission. Some think she's too deeply rooted in the ways of the military and ill equipped to make the transition to Congress. She disagrees, citing her ability to work long days with no rest and thrive amid chaos as traits needed to be efficient in Congress as well. Her understanding of national security threats and how to address them would also serve her well, she said.
She has some experience in Washington D.C., too, having spent 1999 working on Capitol Hill as a national security adviser to Sen. Jon Kyl.
Her political stances are rooted in her belief in the conservative principles of the Republican Party: freedom, opportunity, personal responsibility, minimal federal government, free market and strong national defense. But she said she won't be beholden to party leadership, calling herself a "rugged individualist and independent thinker."
Democrats say McSally's policy positions are too extreme for the district, likening her to Jesse Kelly, a tea-party favorite who lost in 2010 to Giffords and this year to Barber.
"I'm a moderate Democrat," Barber said. "And I really believe the people of this district are looking for moderation, not an extreme on either end."
McSally laughs at the "extreme" label, which she says is part of the divisive labeling game.
Her campaign and TV ads are built around her military accomplishments and pioneering spirit.
"Forget about politics; we elect unique people with unique backgrounds," McSally said.
Barber's road from behind-the-scenes staffer to congressman has been told often this year.
He was shot twice in the Jan. 8, 2011, rampage that wounded Giffords, eventually forcing her to resign, and in which six people were killed and 13 wounded. With her backing, Barber decided to run in the special election, announcing midway through the campaign he would run for a full term of his own.
Despite the helter-skelter nature of running in three elections in five months (he got a free pass in the fourth by running unopposed in the CD8 special-election primary), Barber said it has been a wonderful experience. And he said his more than three months in Congress have made him 100 percent sure his decision to run for a full term was the right one.
"For me, this is just another opportunity to serve the community I love so much," Barber said. "Public service is a noble profession. I never imagined I would have the opportunity to serve in this way."
McSally says Barber has already become part of what the public so dislikes about Congress in his first three months there.
"He's already using the divisive rhetoric, he's using the party boss talking points even in this campaign against me," McSally said. "The people of Southern Arizona are going to see through that and see that we have a choice."
Barber says his moderate stances are more in line with the district.
He has advocated for the middle class, getting veterans assistance, bolstering border security, pushing for more renewable energy, and protecting Social Security and Medicare. He also talked about working for bipartisan solutions.
He said his time in Congress has made him even more qualified. He better understands how to move bills, has begun building relationships with other members of Congress and identified moderate Republicans with whom he can work.
"Until you've actually been on the floor of the House, until you've actually been in hearings, you just don't know what it's like," Barber said. "Being a staff person is not the same thing as being a member, not by a long shot."
He believes his seniority, however brief, will give him better committee assignments and positioning, although with Republicans expected to retain control of the House that advantage could be minimal.
Barber said his top priority for a full term would be getting the nation's "fiscal house in order."
"The budget deficit and the sequestration requirement and the Bush tax-cut extensions all come together," Barber said. "We have to do this in a way that helps middle-class Americans. We have to do this in a way that is balanced. We have to do this in a way that is going to protect seniors and not balance the budget on their backs."
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Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @BradyMcCombs.