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From Arizona, Political Tea Leaves Worth Reading? Election 2012 News - AARP

Democrats are buoyed by an emotional special-election win in Arizona's Republican-leaning 8th Congressional District, where a former aide to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords earned a trip to Washington to succeed the congresswoman who was shot in the head while meeting with constituents in 2011.

But is the outcome an early test of - and testament to - the importance voters attach to Medicare and Social Security?

The victorious Democrat, Ron Barber, hammered GOP candidate Jesse Kelly for saying in a previous campaign that the two programs should be phased out and moved toward privatization.

"Bernie Madoff is in prison right now for what the federal government has done with Social Security and Medicare," Kelly told a TV interviewer during the 2010 congressional campaign he narrowly lost to Giffords. "It's the biggest Ponzi scheme in history,'' he said, adding that he advocated a "phasing out" of the programs for "future generations."

Kelly didn't advocate cutting the programs for current recipients, but the Barber campaign, seeking votes in the district with the 11th-oldest population in the country, hit him relentlessly. And the Kelly campaign was clearly sensitive to its potential vulnerability on the issue: It aired an ad in which Kelly pledged to protect Social Security and Medicare while accusing Barber of supporting " Obamacare" and cutting Medicare by $500 billion. "Don't let Ron Barber cut my benefits, Jesse - I've earned them," Kelly's own grandfather says in the ad. "Don't worry, grandpa - I won't," Kelly responds. Obama's health care law actually does not cut benefits but aims to slow the growth of Medicare over 10 years by reducing payments to providers and to Medicare Advantage plans.

Other factors undoubtedly figured in Barber's win, including the inherent pathos of replacing Giffords, who miraculously survived the gun attack, with an aide also injured in the assault. But Barber's eight-point margin in enemy territory is sure to have plenty of campaign strategists - Democratic and Republican - pondering what it could mean for the candidates they're trying to elect this fall. - Susan Milligan

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