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Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this story incorrectly said that Schuyler Lininger, the Republican candidate in the 1987 race for Tucson mayor, was an incumbent. The mayor at the time, Republican Lewis C. Murphy, chose not to run. This version has been corrected.

A place where passions run high

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By Kimberly Kindy and Philip Rucker
Monday, January 17, 2011

IN DOUGLAS, ARIZ. The congresswoman's grueling path to reelection took her from her Tucson base across the barren high desert, through an empty expanse of tumbleweed and mesquite trees, to this dusty town at the Mexican border that has come to symbolize the tinderbox of Arizona politics.

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Rep. Gabrielle Giffords returned here on a sweltering day last June to gather footage for her campaign advertisements. A moderate Democrat in a classic swing district, she walked a main street where American flags hang outside shoe stores and barbershops. A voice-over emphasized her strengths: independence . . . courage . . . integrity.

With the camera rolling, a man stormed out of the Gadsden Hotel, a historic landmark. He screamed that Giffords was about to get "thrown out" of office, creating such a scene that police intervened.

"He began viciously, verbally attacking Gabby," said Jason Ralston, Giffords's Washington-based consultant who was directing the action. "I've never seen anything like it."

The man channeled his anger toward Giffords, but this was about much more than a lone congresswoman. He seemed to give voice to the long-simmering frustrations and passions in southern Arizona that boiled over during Giffords's hard-fought 2010 campaign.

Pitched emotions - centered on the issues of immigration, health care and the economy - have fueled an atmosphere here that encourages vitriol, according to interviews with more than two dozen state political leaders and residents. An anti-Washington sentiment has flourished as people blame their elected leaders, not just for failing to fix problems but for passing laws that only add to the mess.

The atmosphere created a sense of foreboding long before the Jan. 8 massacre at a Tucson strip mall where Giffords was meeting with constituents. Since the shootings, the co-founder of the Tucson Tea Party has endured death threats and hate mail that required law enforcement assistance, including a verbal threat made Saturday at a community gathering that included one of the shooting survivors.

A new Facebook page - Tea Party Tucson Massacre - has cropped up, blaming the tea party for the deaths of the six people, including a 9-year-old girl. On Friday, a new image appeared mocking the tactics of Republican Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate, who targeted Giffords's district during the election with a map marked with cross hairs. (A Palin aide said the image was intended to represent surveyors' marks.) The image of a T-shirt on the site shows the marks plastered atop Palin's face.

Trent Humphries, the tea party leader, said that because of the rancor, he was urged to stay away from memorial services and funerals honoring the shooting victims. "The police have told me that I had better not go to any large events right now," he said. "It wouldn't be safe."

Although the accused killer, Jared Lee Loughner, focused on Giffords as early as 2007, no evidence has emerged that he did so because of a specific political issue. He was a registered independent who apparently harbored anger toward the congresswoman for her answer to his question at an earlier constituent event.

But Giffords's district offers a case study of problems that have driven much of Arizona's politics to a boiling point. The 8th District is fiercely independent, much like its congresswoman, who mucked horse stalls as a child and rides motorcycles without a helmet. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral took place midway between Tucson and the border at Tombstone, now a tourist trap - "The Town Too Tough to Die" - that resembles a Hollywood lot for some Wild West flick.

The immigration debate has raged here for years. Last March, an illegal immigrant allegedly shot and killed a prominent rancher, Robert Krentz, on his land outside of Douglas. The slaying provided some of the momentum for the state's immigration law last summer.

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