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Recovery aside, Giffords’ vote was brilliant politics

If we are to take her staff’s word for it, U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords will retain — at least — her Democratic seat in Congress in 2012.

In the best-case scenario, she would be the heavy front-runner in a U.S. Senate race with Republican Congressman Jeff Flake, whose early entry into the contest has thus far scared off all other GOP contenders.

And by its “word,” I don’t mean Giffords’ staff has in any way confirmed the congresswoman’s intentions to run for re-election. Quite the contrary: They are saying that she has made no decision to run and is focused on her inspiring recovery.

But her staff says that her emotional return Aug. 1 to the nation’s capital was driven by her understanding of the high-stakes debt-ceiling deal — and her frustration that Congress had, in the days leading up to her appearance, hit an impasse.

That, in and of itself, is remarkable. Less than seven months ago, a gun-wielding madman shot her through the head with a 9mm semi-automatic pistol in a rampage that took the lives of six people and wounded 12 others.

By walking onto the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, waving to the crowd, mouthing “thank you” and pressing the “yes” button, Giffords shook the political world.

She put Arizona on notice that she will be a factor in 2012.

The fact that Giffords appeared in Congress at that moment, during that divisive debate and cast her “yes” vote was not only a stunning show of resolve and grit for the beloved now-national figure.

It also was politically brilliant. It showed she was engaged and bipartisan at a time when most Americans are begging for that from politicians.

This is the point at which people like us in the political media catch hell because we appear to only consider the political ramifications. We publicly ask the questions others are asking in private circles: “She just won re-election, right?” “Does this mean Flake is finished?”

But some are speaking openly about it — and quickly. Case in point: Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Phoenix Democrat, quipped on Twitter: “@frankantenori Hey Did you see Gabby voted today? Looks like you get to work with me for a couple more years! See you in January.” Gallego was referring to Republican Sen. Frank Antenori’s congressional aspirations in southern Arizona.

As for Flake, he would probably get swallowed up by a Giffords’ political machine with national name ID and a fundraising network to match it. Think about it for a moment: The first anniversary of the massacre would be recounted during the campaign.

And as one political insider with congressional campaign experience told me: As an underdog, you can’t win if you don’t attack your opponent. Attacks, in this case, would be off-limits.

While Giffords’ future is publicly unknown, the very public return of a woman who looked great and appeared well on her way to recovery forecasted more than words ever could: She looks like she’s ready to run again.

And ready to win.

Flake can only hope it’s for her re-election.

—Bill Bertolino is managing editor of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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