By Tim Gaynor
TUCSON (Reuters) - Tucson Democrat Ron Barber cruised to victory on Tuesday night in a special election to succeed his one-time boss, former Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who retired in January to focus on her recovery from a gunshot wound to the head.
Barber, 66, Giffords' handpicked successor and a former aide in the House of Representatives, led with 52 percent of the vote. His Republican rival, Jesse Kelly, 30, a construction project manager and Iraq war veteran, had 45 percent, according to a tally from 86 percent of precincts.
"Only by working together will we get past the gridlock that is hurting our middle class," Barber said in a victory speech delivered to supporters at a hotel in Tucson.
"This was never Gabby's seat. It's not my seat. It's your seat. This seat belongs to the people of southern Arizona," Barber told the crowd.
He was joined on stage by Giffords, 42, and her husband, retired astronaut Mark Kelly.
A spokeswoman for Barber's campaign said he had received a telephone call earlier from his opponent congratulating Barber on his victory.
In November 2010, Kelly came within 2 percentage points of unseating Giffords, then a two-term incumbent, in Arizona's 8th Congressional District, where Republicans now hold a registration edge of 25,000 voters. Independents account for roughly 30 percent of the district's electorate.
Tuesday's contest attracted big dollars, with independent political committees pumping $2.2 million into the race, according to the Federal Election Commission. The latest filings showed Barber with $390,000 in available cash and Kelly with $83,000.
Barber, heavily favored to win due to his endorsement by Giffords, whose popularity and political stature seemed only to climb as she soldiered on through a difficult recovery, will serve out the six months left in her term.
Voters will head to the polls again in November to elect a representative for a full two-year term.
Giffords, seen as a rising Democratic star in the U.S. House of Representatives, was among 19 people shot on January 8, 2011, when a gunman opened fire on the congresswoman and a crowd of bystanders at a meet-and-greet outside a Tucson supermarket. Six people were killed and 13 others were wounded, including Giffords and Barber. He was shot in the face and thigh.
After accompanying Giffords and her husband to vote at a polling station in Tucson on Tuesday, Barber told reporters he felt "rejuvenated and invigorated" by the campaign.
Barber focused his campaign on rebuilding the middle class, protecting Medicare and Social Security, bolstering veteran's services and reforming the nation's immigration efforts. He wants more agents at the Arizona-Mexico border, not miles away.
Barber also has said wants the nation to be more energy independent, and Tucson to become the "solar capital of the country."
His Republican rival campaigned on job creation, lowering taxes and strengthening the economy. He is a strong advocate for building a double-layered fence on the Mexico border.
Limping heavily on Tuesday, Giffords briefly waved to reporters and said, "Good morning. How are you?" as she went to cast her vote.
She has struggled to regain speech and movement in her right arm and leg since the shooting. After casting her vote, she left without taking questions.
The man accused of the Tucson shooting rampage, Jared Loughner, 23, has pleaded not guilty to 49 criminal offenses, including first-degree murder. He has been declared mentally unfit to stand trial and is undergoing psychiatric treatment at a federal prison hospital in Missouri.
(The story is corrected to change total number of shooting victims in paragraph 11)
(Additional reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Eric Walsh)