Private polling by both sides has shown a close, margin-of-error race in the 8th District for weeks. Spending by outside groups and the two campaigns has reached around $4 million, and people in the district describe an unceasing drumbeat of campaign commercials on TV. That has contributed to a remarkable level of awareness and early voting turnout for a special election; more than 120,000 early ballots have been returned so far, and observers expect around two-thirds or more of the total vote to be cast early. Republicans have underperformed their registration advantage in the early ballot returns, perhaps giving an edge to Barber and Democrats, who sometimes struggle to turn out their voters in special elections.
Apart from the decline of local politics, the other big lesson from this race will be a look at which party's message appears to be having more impact in the final live test before November's general election. In a way, the special election's local angle ended up making a nationalized race appealing to both sides. For the Republicans' part, the strong resonance of Barber's Giffords connection made nationalizing the race the most effective way to oppose him. And Democrats figured that Barber was already so closely identified with Giffords that there was no point in hitting voters over the head with it -- she hasn't appeared in any of Barber's television advertisements, though she did appear at a Barber rally this weekend. Instead, Democrats saw an opportunity to test-drive messaging on entitlements that they feel would be effective against other Republicans nationwide, in the type of district Democrats need to take back the House majority.
Kelly and outside GOP groups have connected Barber to Obama and Pelosi in virtually every ad and campaign appearance, reprising their most effective line from 2010. That line has caused Barber some discomfort in the campaign, especially in one debate where he briefly vacillated on whether he supported Obama for reelection. On the policy side, while touting lower taxes and fewer regulations, Republicans have used the national Democratic connection to hit Barber for Medicare cuts in "Obamacare" and potential energy cost increases under a cap and trade system, two other critiques pulled straight from the successes of 2010.
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Barber's campaign presented him as a moderate former businessman, by contrast, and while he has talked up those credentials on the air, outside Democratic groups and his campaign have hammered Kelly as a candidate out of the mainstream. The most memorable ad of the special came from Democratic-aligned House Majority PAC, which played clips of Kelly saying the minimum wage should be eliminated and calling Social Security and Medicare a "Ponzi scheme," and, for the cherry on top, included video of Kelly saying, in 2010, that Giffords was not a "hometown hero" -- even though it was plucked from the 2010 campaign, before Giffords was shot, in the present context, nothing is further outside the mainstream.