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What Would Gabby Do?

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Kelly, Giffords, and Diane Sawyer on set for the ABC special.  

Diane Sawyer was again selected to do the interview that would begin the rollout. In its release, ABC had hinted that Giffords would participate—but the network got ahead of itself. In negotiations, “Gabby was never on the table,” a producer explained. Giffords may say a few words, but, as Carusone said, “it’s not a full-length interview.”

The release of the book is another inflection point, and raises a new set of questions about the meaning of her recovery. Before the shooting, she’d been a rising young talent. “She was truly, truly, truly a star … smart, quick, and hardworking. So sincere. So direct,” said a national Democratic strategist. “The Princess Di of southern Arizona,” offered a local commentator.

If Giffords and her team decide that she’s capable of running and she gets back in, the outcome is a foregone conclusion. “If she runs, she wins,” said the strategist. But there’s a flip side: “If she doesn’t run, it’s not a seat easy for Democrats to hold.”

Alongside the narrative of recovery, there are difficult real-world calculations for the Giffords team to make. Democratic leaders hope for delay—the national attention and sympathy that Giffords attracts are fungible commodities in an election year. How extensive her recovery needs to be in order for her to govern effectively is still being worked out—does she really need to be able to deliver a speech from the floor? Indeed, some of the crucial functions of her campaign work almost automatically these days. She effortlessly raised money without attending a single fund-raiser—her friend Senator Kirsten Gillibrand helped, in case she decides to run. As of the last filing, she has collected over $800,000. If she didn’t run, the money could be spent on other candidates.

The fact that Giffords hasn’t yet declared her intentions is itself an element of her political power. No one dares declare a candidacy or raise campaign funds while this courageous woman fights against the odds. A website, giffordsislying.com, that had backed her opponent now shows a single page, a prayer for her swift recovery.

The book changes this equation. No doubt, it will generate positive feeling toward Giffords, but it could also limit her options. “It will draw attention to her ability to run,” said one staffer.

And her recovery, impressive as it has been, is not over. “If she had to declare today, she couldn’t run,” said a longtime friend.

For some, reclaiming her old seat has become the sine qua non of her recovery, part of its definition. In the book she offers a simple, heartfelt declaration: “I will get stronger. I will return.” But there are other options if it takes longer than expected. One of the daydreams floating through the corridors of Washington these days is that Kelly will step in. “He’s really accomplished. And there’s the popularity that both of them enjoy. Plus his biography would make him compelling,” said an influential Democrat. Kelly was already speaking for her, endorsing candidates on her behalf, which led to media reports like “Mark Kelly and Gabby Giffords support …” It was a version of Bill Clinton’s buy-one-get-one-free boast about Hillary.

The Democratic Establishment reached out to Kelly when Republican senator John Kyl decided not to seek reelection. Kelly rebuffed them at that point. (Now Dr. Richard Carmona, a former U.S. surgeon general and close Giffords ally, is going to run for the seat.) “She’s the politician in the family,” he said recently. “I’m the space guy. And I see no reason to change that …”—he left the door open—“… now.”


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