WASHINGTON — The signals are strong. One year after being shot in the head, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is on a mission to return to the job she so clearly loved.
Her husband and people near the three-term congresswoman say she is highly motivated to recover from her injuries and get back to work in Washington, potentially using her inspirational story as a way to mend political differences in the nation's capital. She faces a May deadline to get on the November ballot, meaning she has a few months to decide her next step.
Her future will depend on a recovery that has progressed in remarkable fashion over the past year as she is now able to walk and talk. Her only interview occurred with ABC's Diane Sawyer nearly 10 months after the shooting and showed how far she has come, but also how far she has to go. At the time, she did not speak in complete sentences and repeated her words to make her point.
"No, better. Um, better, better," she said when asked about returning to Washington.
The day after the interview ran, her congressional office released an audio recording that showed she had made progress in her communication skills in the two weeks that had elapsed between the interview and its airing. She read from a script and an aide said it took multiple tries before she was comfortable with the result.
"I'm getting stronger. I'm getting better," Giffords said. "There is a lot to say. I will speak better."
Jared Lee Loughner, 23, who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia, has pleaded not guilty to charges stemming from the mass shooting Jan. 8, 2011 outside a Tucson supermarket where Giffords was meeting with her constituents. He is being forcibly medicated at a federal prison facility in Missouri in an effort to make him mentally ready for trial.
Giffords returned to Tucson on Friday from Houston to attend ceremonies to mark Sunday's one-year anniversary of the shooting that killed six and injured her and 12 others.
Her first stop was her office, where she participated in an emotional ceremony to honor slain staffer Gabe Zimmerman. Her staff dedicated a life-size photo of Zimmerman and a memorial plaque that will greet visitors as they arrive. Her husband, Mark Kelly, posted a photo of the couple on a visit Saturday morning to a trailhead outside Tucson named in honor of Zimmerman.
Events will take place throughout Sunday in Tucson, and Giffords is expected to attend at least one.
Giffords has cast one vote since the shooting. She surprised colleagues in August by returning to Washington to vote for legislation raising the nation's debt ceiling. The debate leading up to the vote had been among the most bitter and partisan of the year. On other votes, she is recorded as not voting.
Giffords' staff consults with her when working on major initiatives, such as trying to fend off the Air Force's efforts to move the 612th Air and Space Operations Center out of Tucson. The staff also works on individual constituent requests, such as helping war veterans and their widows obtain benefits or in securing a Tucson woman's flight out of Egypt during demonstrations in early 2011. Aides say that Giffords now participates in teleconferences with members of her staff about once a week, though the call gets put off occasionally based on her schedule.
Giffords has captivated the nation as she recovers. Going into Christmas week, her office had 24,880 letters that had poured in from all over the world. Students from 428 schools mailed her a get-well card. Many well-wishers send her hand-made gifts, such as quilts, jewelry and paintings. People also send CDs with their favorite music and books with uplifting themes that they hope will cheer her up.
"Almost every day, we get more gifts" said Giffords' spokesman Mark Kimble. "People routinely come in, asking if she's here and if they can talk to her."
On Capitol Hill, colleagues have held several fundraisers on her potential campaign's behalf, raising more than $800,000 between Jan. 1 and Sept. 30, a number that will surely grow when a new quarterly report is filed later this month.
The lawmakers say they're optimistic that she'll come back, but are sensitive about getting ahead of Giffords.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said Thursday that she called Kelly earlier in the day to emphasize that Democratic lawmakers were thinking of the congresswoman as the anniversary of the shooting approached.
"We look forward to welcoming her back, and hopefully that will be soon," Pelosi said.
Giffords speaks with Rep. Debbie Wasserman Shultz probably more than any other member of Congress. When asked about her colleague's return, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee said Giffords was focused on her recovery for now.
"She's making a lot of progress. She's doing great," Wasserman Shultz said. "She still has a long way to go."
Giffords has until May 30 to file nominating signatures to have her name placed on the ballot for Arizona's 8th Congressional District. Kelly told Arizona Public Media that she won't wait until the last minute to make her decision, and he has suggested that she might wait until 2014 to mount her political comeback.
He said Giffords "is the exact same person" she was before the shooting and just has to learn how to communicate as well as she did before.
"She doesn't remember the day she was shot, but if you back up one day, her memory is as good as mine for anything we have done together over the last seven years that I have known her," he said.
That memory was on display near the White House in October when several current and former members of Congress attended Kelly's retirement ceremony from the Navy. As guests were introduced, Giffords turned and acknowledged them by waving or blowing a kiss. She even had an easier time than Vice President Joe Biden in pinning a medal onto Kelly, despite limited use of her right hand. The bullet went through the left side of her brain, which has affected her right side. She walks with a limp and it's difficult for her to use her right arm.
Giffords' district is a swing district with nearly equal percentages of Republican and Democratic voters. Potential Republican challengers are awaiting her decision before committing to the race. If she doesn't run, multiple candidates are expected to enter the fray. If she opts to run, there will be less enthusiasm on their part because they know Giffords would be a heavy favorite.
"It will be very difficult, but nothing is impossible," said Shane Wikfors, communications director for the Arizona Republican Party.
The difficulty of challenging Giffords transcends the issues. People are rooting for her regardless of political leanings, said Chuck Coughlin, a Republican strategist in Phoenix.
"She will forever have a very special place in all of Arizona's heart for the price she has paid for public service," Coughlin said.
Coughlin said that Giffords' ability to serve in Congress is a legitimate question that will have to be raised at some point in an election campaign by her opponent, but it won't be easy.
"They'll be booed out of the room initially for doing it," he said.
Coughlin said that voters over time will begin to examine for themselves her capacity to serve, and he believes that Giffords will have that same litmus test for herself. He spoke with Kelly in recent months and got the impression that Kelly viewed his wife's return to a meaningful public service role as helpful to her recovery.
"I think she'll be running for re-election as part of her recovery," Coughlin said.
C.J. Karamargin, who worked on Giffords staff as her spokesman until mid-August, said that every time he sees her, he notices distinct improvement. Based on his interaction with her, he believes she understands everything that is going on around her. She just has trouble articulating her thoughts. Around Labor Day, he teased her about how he had heard she was enjoying Houston, where she is undergoing therapy at TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital.
"She rolled her eyes and shook her head faster than a snap of the finger and said, 'no, no, no,'" Karamargin said.
Karamargin said that if Giffords returns, which he believes she will, she could play an important role in helping lawmakers bridge their differences on key issues.
"If Gabby gets back to Congress, I think she will bring with her this sense of, 'We can rise above this. I did it. We can do it.'"