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Reality and Hope Collide on Giffords

P.K. Weis/SouthwestPhotoBank.com
The first portraits of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords since she was shot were posted to her Facebook page Sunday morning.

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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.

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