Updated at 8:09 a.m. on February 15.
CORRECTION: The original version of this report gave an incorrect first name for Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon.
The entrance of Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., into the Arizona Senate race this week jump-started the GOP contest for the seat of retiring Republican Sen. Jon Kyl, but it could be some time before Democratic candidates begin to emerge.
That's because the field appears to be frozen by uncertainty over -- and respect for -- Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
Before her near-fatal encounter with a would-be assassin's bullet last month, the Arizona Democrat had talked about running for Senate should Kyl retire. Now, the possibility that she might recover from a gunshot to the head in time to make the race is keeping other Democrats on hold.
"Democrats may do some behind-the-scenes organizing, but if [a Giffords candidacy] is a possibility and medical experts concurred in that, there would probably be considerable feeling for 'let’s wait till first of next year until we decide,'" said former Sen. Dennis DeConcini, the last Democrat to hold an Arizona Senate seat. DeConcini said the centrist Giffords would be a formidable candidate should she run, but added that keeping other potential candidates waiting could pose political problems for Democrats.
"That’s a pro and a con: If she doesn’t run, you need to go today," he said.
Flake's announcement -- followed immediately by two endorsements from influential fiscal conservative groups -- illustrated how quickly Republicans are moving. Other GOP candidates besides Flake also are testing the waters. Only one Democrat besides Giffords has the built-in infrastructure and high name recognition to be able to afford a late start in the race: Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the state's former governor.
"I think Janet Napolitano would be the best candidate for the Democrats. She’s got some negatives in Arizona, but she was extremely well-received at the memorial service held in Tucson, almost equal to how the president was," said DeConcini, referring to the ceremony held last month in honor of the shooting victims. "Republicans have some tough candidates for Democrats. That’s why if you have the star power of Napolitano, or if Giffords is capable of running, that’d be very helpful."
Other Democrats interested in the race include Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Rep. Ed Pastor, former Reps. Harry Mitchell and Ann Kirkpatrick, Arizona Board of Regents Member and Democratic National Committeeman Fred DuVal, U.S. Attorney Dennis Burke, former state Democratic Chairman Don Bivens, and the current chairman, Andrei Cherny. None have high statewide name recognition.
Sources close to Giffords's camp believe she would be a formidable candidate. But one person close to the congresswoman, who is undergoing intensive therapy in Houston, said there has been no discussion of the Senate race.
A high-level Arizona Democratic insider, who asked not to be identified in order to avoid being seen as favoring a particular candidate, said Giffords's strengths go far beyond any sympathy vote, and include her track record of winning in a Republican-leaning district even in the Republican wave year of 2010. But this source said that while Giffords might clear the field should she eventually jump into the race, Democrats may not be able to wait for her to make a move.
"The respect and consideration of her front-runner status and her current condition have maybe given people a little more pause," the source said. "But having said that, it won’t necessarily stop others from jumping in before the end of the year."