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Reality and Hope Collide on Giffords

Supporters of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords are getting mixed messages about the Arizona Democrat’s political future.

Just a day after Giffords’ chief of staff offered a blunt assessment of the Congresswoman’s recovery from being shot in the head Jan. 8, Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz painted a far rosier picture.

“Each time I’ve visited her, it’s been two or three words, and then more and more complex. Gabby spoke to me last Wednesday,” Wasserman Schultz said in an interview with Roll Call. The Florida Democrat noted that she’s visited Giffords seven times since January. “For the first time, she said things to me that weren’t just in response to what I said, and I was really surprised.”

That optimism contrasts with far grimmer words from Pia Carusone, Giffords’ chief of staff and the Congresswoman’s surrogate during the five months since the shooting. Carusone told the Arizona Republic this week that Giffords still struggles to verbalize her thoughts and left open the question of whether she would ever run for office again.

Wasserman Schultz said her more positive analysis of Giffords’ recovery is in part because of the long stretches between her visits. Unlike Carusone, who interacts with Giffords almost daily, Wasserman Schultz often goes several weeks without seeing her House colleague and said every visit brings new signs of progress.

“I have seen her progress every month, and it’s always been significant month to month,” she said.

Giffords’ backers say Carusone’s departure from those kinds of relentlessly upbeat dispatches has now opened the door to contemplating scenarios in which Giffords does not stand for re-election, something many had been loath to acknowledge while they cheered her recovery.

“That interview has given us the opportunity to stop whispering and start talking,” Phoenix-based Democratic consultant Mario Diaz said.

Wasserman Shultz, however, says such talk is premature and that whether Giffords will return to public service is still up in the air. “I think we’re not up to being able to answer that question,” she said.

In the months since the shooting, Members mostly have given Giffords and her staff space as they work under unprecedented circumstances. Democratic leaders offer few comments on their Arizona colleague and the subject rarely comes up during Caucus meetings, aides said.

Giffords has until May 2012 to declare her candidacy. And as she’s been making what even her doctors have called an amazing recovery from her brain injuries, those in her inner circle spoke of her return to Congress as an eventuality.

But in the Arizona Republic interview, Carusone was more circumspect, noting that the Congresswoman is not yet halfway though the stage during which brain-injury victims make most of their progress. “We’d love to know today what her life will be, what her quality of life will be, which will determine whether she’ll be able to run for office and all sorts of other things involving her life,” Carusone said. “But we just don’t know yet.”

Staffers on Capitol Hill noted that the tone of uncertainty is a far cry from only a few months ago, when the tenor from Giffords’ camp was more optimistic and she was even being floated as a top-tier candidate for Arizona’s open Senate seat.

And Carusone’s analysis of her boss’s physical condition was a surprise to Congressional followers who recalled the daily briefings from Giffords’ team of physicians in the first few weeks after the January shooting.

The fresh admission that Giffords is far from ready to resume her duties — and, in fact, might never be — seems to have granted those who held their tongues permission to speak openly about the politics surrounding her Congressional seat. Giffords is well-liked in her district and in Washington circles, and many thought it unseemly to raise the possibility that her recovery would be anything less than complete.

“These conversations can be awkward,” Diaz said. “But it’s been awkward to not have these conversations. It might be time to start thinking about Plan B … Democrats can’t be behind the eight ball.”

Still, others held out hope for a best-case scenario. 

“I don’t think at this stage, this far out from when she would have to file, no one can really know what her political future looks like,” a Democratic strategist said. “At this point, I think they’re just trying to keep the public informed.”

The strategist noted that Giffords’ office was up and running just days after the Tucson incident and has remained active ever since. Just last week, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), a Giffords confidant, reintroduced legislation he worked on with the Congresswoman last year to boost the military’s use of renewable energies. Giffords, of course, did not appear at the press conference alongside Udall, a Tucson native, but the Coloradan nevertheless made her presence felt.

“This is an issue that’s near and dear to Gabby … I know she’s eager to continue this important work,” Udall said, noting the day of the press conference coincidentally fell on Giffords’ 41st birthday.

“I think this is particularly monumental that we introduce this bill today,” he said. 

Other colleagues, too, have acted on Giffords’ behalf. Seeking to keep Giffords’ options open by keeping her campaign coffers flush, Udall and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Adam Smith (D-Wash.) held separate fundraisers for her last month.

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