The four Republicans and one Democrat hoping to complete the term of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords have barely launched their campaigns.
But Republicans Jesse Kelly, Frank Antenori, Martha McSally and Dave Sitton are nearly out of time to persuade GOP voters they're best suited to take on Democrat Ron Barber in the upcoming special election.
Early ballots went out Thursday. The primary looms on April 17.
Besides Barber, who is unopposed in the Democratic primary, Charlie Manolakis is running unopposed for the Green Party nomination. Those two will move on to the June 12 special election with the Republican who gets the most votes in next month's primary.
Typically, congressional campaigns are set into motion nine months to more than a year in advance, to raise money and build name recognition and support.
The time crunch isn't the only challenge for the GOP candidates. Little separates them on most key issues. In forums and debates, they have agreed far more than they've disagreed.
They all want a smaller federal government with fewer regulations; reduced government spending; repeal of recent health-care reform; more oil drilling, which they believe will lower gas prices; and better border security.
But there are some contrasts:
At forums and debates Kelly always promises, "This time we will finish the job," referring to his 2010 run for CD8, in which he narrowly lost to Giffords.
Kelly, a project manager at family-owned Don Kelly Construction, is the youngest contender, at 30, and the only one without a college degree.
Still, many political commentators see him as the one to beat based on name recognition earned in his tea-party-backed 2010 run.
"We came within 4,000 votes of beating a supposedly unbeatable incumbent who outspent us," Kelly said.
But some baggage lingers from his 2010 campaign. At a campaign event with the slogan, "Get on Target for Victory ... Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office," he invited people to shoot fully automatic M16s with him. He was criticized for opposing the federal stimulus package although his family construction business worked on projects that received federal tax dollars, including stimulus funding. And he said Medicare beneficiaries were "on the public dole."
Opponents question why he left Arizona after his defeat - he says he went to Texas temporarily to run a project for the family business, but Southern Arizona will always be his home.
Kelly has been the least verbose of the four when talking about the issues, staying close to his principal platform: lower taxes, a strong economy and more jobs.
On the rare occasion when he gets more talkative, it's about problems caused by big government, how awful President Obama is, or the country's endless oil reserves that are not being tapped.
He says he's a businessman, not a politician, but wants to be a congressman so his two young sons can grow up in a free country without an overbearing government.
"I was taught by both my parents, and in the United States Marine Corps, that you do not cowardly ask somebody else to do something you wouldn't do," Kelly said. "How can we stand by any longer and ask anybody to run an election if we don't have the guts to do so?"
Antenori doesn't shy away from the reputation he's earned as a hard-nosed state legislator who happily goes toe-to-toe with opponents.
The program manager at Raytheon, 46, has portrayed himself as a tireless fighter who won't back down from anybody and won't go to Congress to make friends. Often referring to his 20-year Army career, he says he's ready to go to battle for Southern Arizonans. He moved to Tucson in 2004 after he retired from the military.
"I do have, sort of, a gruff attitude and I'm very confident, and if they interpret that as ego, that's fine," he said. "My mission is to represent the people that elect me to represent them. I go and represent them aggressively and passionately."
As the state Senate majority whip - and having run for Congress in 2006, when he lost in the GOP primary - Antenori is the most politically experienced of the candidates.
He touts his legislative experience and frequently reminds audiences he is the only candidate who has balanced a budget or cut debt, as he has during his time in the state Legislature, since 2009.
Antenori has developed a reputation for not pulling any punches. Whether you agree with him or not, he keeps your attention. During a tea-party event last month he said he was proud to have killed Taliban fighters. And at an earlier candidate forum he said military benefits for veterans are earned by sleeping in snow and being shot at by "guys in dirty pajamas and flip-flops that want to take your life."
Asked about his strategy to beat Barber, Antenori said playing the sympathy card won't work for the survivor of the Jan. 8, 2011, Tucson shooting that killed six people and wounded 13.
"I, too, have lost friends in combat. … I've had people die at my feet," said Antenori. "To say that he is going to get elected simply because he was in close proximity to gunfire I think is a stretch."
A fighter pilot during her 26-year Air Force career, McSally often shares tales of her exploits or reverts to pilot lingo. A favorite line is that the country is off-vector and in need of a pilot to get it back on course.
"We need someone who is conservative but not inflammatory," said McSally, 46, "who is conservative and electable, without compromising ideology. That's what I offer to this community."
She left her position as a professor of national security studies at the George C. Marshall Center in Germany to return to Tucson and run for this seat. She has lived here for 10 years during four stints at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.
Though a political novice, McSally is not new to the spotlight. In 1994 she was the Air Force's first woman to fly in combat. In 2001 she 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.
In 2004, as commander of D-M's 354th Fighter Squadron, she became the first woman to lead an Air Force fighter squadron.
But politics is a new arena, and some question if she knows the issues well enough for Congress. When asked in February about the budget proposal by U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., she told the Tucson Weekly, "Who's Paul Ryan? Sorry, I've been overseas for a while."
But she's proving a quick study. A week later, in an Arizona Daily Star online chat, she said she supported many elements of the Ryan budget proposal but it is imperative that promises are kept with seniors and at-risk populations.
McSally bills herself as always authentic, telling audiences she's had fire in her belly since her father died when she was 12. In her last conversation with him, he told her to make him proud.
"Realizing that every day is a gift and that every day can seriously be your last, that is why I've done all the things that I've done," McSally said. "Stood up for what's right, served my country, put my life on the line, put my career on the line. That is who I am."
Sitton is the oldest candidate at 57, and he has the deepest roots in Tucson. He came to the Old Pueblo from California in 1973 to play baseball for the University of Arizona and never left.
For the past 39 years, he's made himself a fixture on boards and committees while working as a sports broadcaster, marketing executive and rugby coach. He is the marketing director for the UA Cancer Center and previously was longtime vice president and general manager at Clear Channel Communications' outdoor-advertising business.
He touts the backing of 200 local small businesses as proof he understands the community.
"I've been here for the booms, the busts. I've experienced success, and I've also experienced a few failures," Sitton said at his Feb. 3 announcement. "My life is very much like most of us who have lived here in Southern Arizona."
He decided to jump into politics because he's deeply concerned about the country straying from its constitutional roots, he said. Though he's never held public office, he tells audiences he strives to be the "citizen legislator" the Founding Fathers envisioned: "That's why I'm running for Congress, to restore that citizen bond that was left to us from the framework of the Constitution."
His platform centers on jobs and the economy, health care and border security. He released 10-point plans for addressing each of those problems - plans drawn from the wisdom of experts in each field.
But he doesn't stick to one script at debates and forums, often providing new answers to questions he's been asked before.
He frequently says he's an American first, running as a Republican. Touting his experience in marketing and communication, Sitton says he can best articulate the conservative position through the prism of the Constitution.
"I am capable of bringing the community together in getting all the votes necessary," he said earlier this month, "and explaining in plain terms why our conservative values are the right values for all Americans."
Meet the candidates
Find out what the candidates say on matters of the economy, border security, the budget and the future of Social Security. Page A5
Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or firstname.lastname@example.org