The race to replace Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Congress has been hijacked by Social Security and Medicare.

A stagnant economy, border security and high gas prices are riding in the back seat in the Congressional District 8 special election pitting Democrat Ron Barber against Republican Jesse Kelly.

The candidates - and the state and national parties backing them - are locked in a back-and-forth game of one-upmanship to show their man is the most dedicated to preserving the federal benefit programs vital to seniors.

More than $1 million has been spent already on attack-style TV ads focused almost entirely on the candidates' positions on Medicare and Social Security.

The uncertain future of the programs has long been a hot political topic. But it's been heightened in this Southern Arizona election because both sides see vulnerabilities in their opponent. The older demographic in the district has also pushed it to the forefront.

Barber and Democrats remind voters daily that two years ago Kelly said he wanted to privatize and phase out Social Security and eliminate Medicare. They slam his pledge this go-round to protect the programs as a disingenuous trick.

Kelly and Republicans continue to link Barber to the Democrat-backed Affordable Care Act of 2010, approved with the support of Barber's former boss. It includes more than $500 billion in future spending cuts to Medicare.

Barber, of course, did not vote for or against "Obmacare" and has said he would reform parts of the law. But he was Giffords' longtime district director and is her chosen successor, and the GOP regularly reminds voters of the link.

Both sides know, too, that older voters could decide this election, said Republican pollster Margaret Kenski. In lower-turnout primaries and special elections, often more than half of people who cast ballots are over 65, Kenski said.

"It's not surprising that Social Security and Medicare would take center stage as issues when so many of the voters are eligible for both of those," Kenski said. "It raises fear in people who are getting older."

Forty-one percent of voting-age people in CD8 are at least 55 years old, 2010 U.S. census numbers show. That's a higher percentage than any of the other seven congressional districts in Arizona. Only CD2 has a higher percentage of potential voters who are at least 65 years old.

And the four counties CD8 touches have a higher percentage of people enrolled in Medicare Advantage than the state or the nation - 42 percent of residents in Pima, Cochise, Pinal and Santa Cruz counties are in the program, compared with 38 percent statewide and 27 percent nationwide, government figures for April 2012 show.

That's important because the Affordable Care Act includes an estimated $145 billion in cuts over 10 years to Medicare Advantage plans, which are operated by private insurers and approved by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. That translates to a disproportionate hit on CD8 pocketbooks.

Legislative fixes are needed

The future looks bleak for Social Security and Medicare, which could both be operating in the red within two decades if Congress doesn't act.

The 2012 annual report from the Trustees of Social Security and Medicare says Social Security will only be fully solvent through 2033. After that, benefits would be ratcheted down. Medicare will only be able to fully pay for Part A, which covers hospital costs, through 2024 before it starts scaling back.

Both programs will cost more in the future because of an aging population and, in the case of Medicare, because of rising medical costs.

The Affordable Care Act includes a $145 billion cut to Medicare Advantage that is part of $575 billion in spending reductions for Medicare over the next 10 years, says an April 2010 memo from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Democrats say some of the reductions will not mean cuts in service. For instance, the cuts to Medicare Advantage are to come by reducing spending per person down to levels that are spent in the traditional Medicare program by paying medical providers less, the memo says. Another estimated $233 billion in spending reductions is to come from scaling back how much hospitals and doctors are paid under traditional Medicare.

Even with those cuts, Medicare spending will increase in response to a rapidly growing older population, from $520 billion in 2010 to $949 billion in 2020, the Congressional Budget Office reports. But spending per capita won't continue at the current pace.

Both candidates acknowledge it's a critical issue.

Barber's first campaign event was at a senior living apartment complex, where he reaffirmed his commitment to protecting Medicare and not privatizing Social Security.

Kelly has spent an increasing amount of time recently talking about the two programs, saying, "These are not welfare programs. These are programs people have paid into all their lives, and we will honor our commitments."

Kelly: no change in views

In response to the buffeting he's taken over comments from his 2010 campaign, Kelly has been doing all he can this time around to reassure voters he will protect those benefits.

He held a press conference with a group of seniors who say they support him. He produced a TV ad with his grandfather in which he promises he'll protect seniors' benefits. He announced an endorsement from the 60 Plus Association.

Earlier this month, yellow stickers were pasted on Kelly's blue campaign signs around the city with the words, "Repeal Obamacare" and "Protect Medicare." He also overhauled his official stance on Social Security and Medicare on his website, adding that he's against privatization of Social Security and for a bipartisan solution for Medicare.

But Democrats have been driving home a message to voters they should not trust a man who two short years ago sang such a different tune. Barber spokesman Rodd McLeod said what's troublesome is Kelly has not admitted he was wrong and explained why he's changed his opinion, but rather tried to act like he never said it.

Kelly says he's always been consistent on the issue.

"The Barber campaign has a great video guy and the ability to attempt to scare seniors into voting a certain way," Kelly said Friday. What is edited out of the TV videos Democrats are pushing, he said, are his comments from those same interviews about "protecting the seniors who are currently on Medicare and Social Security."

His plan to protect the programs is to cultivate more American energy, which will create jobs. With more taxpayers, there will be more revenues for the federal government to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits, he says.

His opinion on privatization - whether to offer younger workers an option of putting a portion of their contribution into personal retirement accounts - remains unclear. A paragraph on his website advocating that option was removed earlier this month.

But he reiterated support for that option at a press conference Friday.

"Maybe you put half of your payroll taxes in a personal account so the government can't touch it," Kelly said.

Americans should be able to decide if they want Social Security and Medicare in the future, he said.

"The American people have always been able to make better decisions for themselves than the government forcing a decision on them," Kelly said.

Asked if that would be a private system, he said it's a system of "American people choosing what they want."

Barber and 'obamacare'

Surrounded by about 150 senior supporters on Monday, Barber celebrated an endorsement of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

He used the event to drive home his claim that he's the only candidate who can be trusted to protect Social Security and prevent cuts to Medicare benefits.

"My opponent is experiencing an extreme makeover," Barber said. "What I have said from the very beginning is what I'm saying here today. No change. No wavering. No flip-flopping."

Republicans don't see it that way.

Though Barber is making his first run for public office, the GOP is telling voters in TV ads, mailers and emails that he supports cuts to Medicare, linking him to the Affordable Care Act through his association with Giffords.

"The facts are that Ron Barber does support Obamacare. He will not support repeal of Obamacare," Kelly said this week. "I will absolutely vote immediately to repeal Obamacare."

Barber has said the health-care reform law was "far from perfect," and parts of it need to be amended. He's counting on voters to understand he wasn't in office to vote on the law, and that his job as Giffords' district director did not include drafting bills.

"Obviously, I wasn't involved in shaping a major piece of legislation," Barber said. "Neither, quite frankly, was Congresswoman Giffords. A bill like that is shaped in the committees of jurisdiction. She wasn't on any of the committees of jurisdiction."

Barber offers several proposals to help shore up the future of the two benefit programs. On Social Security, he said we must get people back to work so more people are paying into the system, and consider adjustments to the program to extend its solvency. Asked if that means raising the retirement age, he said everything should be considered.

On Medicare, Barber says the federal government should immediately be allowed to negotiate the price of medications just as Veterans Affairs does. It also needs to fix Medicare Part D, prescription drug coverage, which been a factor in reducing the solvency of Medicare. Also, the government needs to be more aggressive to weed out fraud and abuse in Medicare, he said.

He's against any privatization of the programs or making them voluntary.

"If healthy seniors walk away, it will make Medicare much more expensive for those who need it the most," Barber said. On Social Security privatization, he said: "We cannot gamble the hard-earned dollars of Arizona's seniors on the stock market."

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Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or