Democrat Ron Barber and Republican Jesse Kelly accused each other of lying to Southern Arizona voters during a frequently testy candidate forum Wednesday.

The two men vying to complete the congressional term of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords traded barbs throughout the one-hour KUAT forum. They sparred several times about the issue that has dominated this campaign - Medicare and Social Security - and also about energy policy. Green Party candidate Charlie Manolakis also participated.

Barber painted Kelly as a man who has a pattern of telling lies and changing his stance on issues, and who is too radical and extreme for Southern Arizona.

"That's really what this campaign is about: Can we trust a candidate, Mr. Kelly in this case, who has repeatedly said one thing and now wants to say something different?" Barber said.

Kelly painted Barber as man whom President Obama and the Democrats are trying to buy as another "reliable far-left vote" and who has spent the campaign mischaracterizing Kelly's past comments.

"Do you want to elect a candidate who has run his entire campaign based on attempting to scare seniors into voting a certain way?" Kelly said.

The trio will square off again in a May 23 debate sponsored by the Arizona Daily Star and the Tucson Jewish Community Center, their last scheduled face-to-face meeting before the June 12 Congressional District 8 special election.

Barber and Kelly are hardly strangers. When Kelly ran against Giffords in 2010 as the tea-party-backed candidate, Barber was her district director. Giffords won by 4,000 votes - her smallest margin of victory since she became a congresswoman - in what she called one of the "angriest, most difficult, challenging and painful" elections in recent memory.

The tension of Wednesday's TV forum is yet another sign of the high stakes in this race, in which more than $1 million has been spent by the national parties in attack-style TV ads. The winner will carry incumbency into the newly drawn Congressional District 2 in November elections. Early ballots in the special election go out today.

Throughout the forum, Barber pointed out statements he says Kelly is wrong about. When he brought up Kelly calling oil a "renewable resource" earlier this year, it led to a tense back-and-forth between the two.

Kelly said his comment about oil being a renewable resource was a joke and everyone knew it.

"So, once again here in a public forum, a man of your stature, just lying to every voter of Southern Arizona," said Kelly, his voice rising. "How embarrassing."

Barber began talking over Kelly, which prompted Kelly to say, "I have not interrupted you once, nor you will interrupt me once, sir. So please, let's not do that."

Barber then confronted Kelly for saying he wanted to eliminate the minimum wage and for then later calling Barber a liar for repeating the statement.

"You said it; it's on tape. Are you denying that?" Barber said.

Kelly refused to answer, saying "You are not the moderator of this debate, Mr. Barber."

"You need to get your facts straight," Barber responded. "You need to not be attacking me inappropriately. You need to not make things up, which you've done from the very beginning. You need to tell the truth. Then we will have a more civil campaign."

They butted heads again over energy policies.

Kelly repeated his plan to get the government out of the way and cultivate more domestic oil, natural gas, coal and uranium, which he believes will create more jobs and protect Social Security and Medicare. He said the U.S. is using only a small portion of the oil it could be cultivating.

"I stand for more, sensible drilling everywhere we can," Kelly said.

Barber said it's important to stop buying oil from hostile foreign governments, while continuing to use oil and natural gas and developing renewable energy resources. Southern Arizona should become the solar industry capital of the world, he said.

Barber said Kelly is wrong about the U.S. having more oil reserves than Saudi Arabia, wrong about having technology being available to tap into oil shale reserves and wrong that drilling for more oil will create jobs in Southern Arizona. The realistic road to creating jobs in Southern Arizona is in the industries of high tech, bioscience and from the University of Arizona's research programs, Barber said.

"Jesse, you have probably been spending a little too much time in Texas, because we don't have oil here to create jobs," Barber said.

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or