Retired Air Force Col. Martha McSally, running as a Republican in Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District, put the Democrats’ “war on women” message into perspective at a campaign event last week. The nation’s first female combat fighter pilot, McSally hasn’t taken kindly to being cast as part of Republicans’ alleged “war on women,” especially when Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s PAC decided to go after her with a kitchen-themed attack ad she called “overtly sexist.”

I’ve seen critiques of her comments from the left, which contend the truly heartbreaking circumstances of women elsewhere should not preclude criticism of circumstances at home. True, but what McSally is doing here is more than deflection. She’s positioning herself among those who have fought for women’s rights, here and abroad, and she’s got more claim to that position than most candidates. She’s also recognizing what it’s taken national Democrats too long to see— that women voters are not solely focused on abortion policy or Lilly Ledbetter, but on their livelihoods, their checkbooks, and making things work for their families in tough times.

Barber, formerly an aide to Rep. Gabby Giffords who was injured Jared Loughner’s attack on the congresswoman, is vying to keep the seat he won in a special election. The district is a swing district, and after redistricting is almost equal parts Republican, Democrat, and Independent. Most have considered chances of a GOP victory in the seat low, thanks in part to the tremendous good will Giffords and Barber maintain in the district, but McSally has insisted the race is tighter than conventional wisdom suggests.

Political analyst Stu Rothenberg offered some supporting evidence Friday when AZ-2 went from a rating of Democrat Favored to Lean Democrat in his ratings system.

The national press also took notice late last week, with a very positive Washington Post profile of McSally, which calls her “feisty and funny, blunt and occasionally profane,” with “obvious relish for blazing the most difficult trails.” The writer picked up on these anecdotes, which both made me laugh:

When former Republican senator Rick Santorum took a stand against women in combat during his presidential bid, McSally went on television and said she “wanted to go kick him in the Jimmy” for saying that.

She went to a private lunch earlier this month to persuade an elusive donor to give to her campaign. “And I didn’t even have to give the pitch, because he said right away he was going to give me $2,500,” McSally recalled. “You know what I said? Are you married? Not because I wanted to date him! Because I wanted to know if he had a wife who could max out, too!”

The whole thing is worth a read. Barber’s campaign had Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly go after McSally in the wake of the article, which again suggests it’s closer than Democrats would like.