Former Sen. Max Cleland (D-GA) isn’t on the ballot in today’s special election to succeed former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) who resigned in January.

But the legacy of Cleland’s 2002 contest for re-election against Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) certainly haunts the race between Democratic nominee Ron Barber and Republican hopeful Jesse Kelly.

Barber is Giffords’ former district director who was wounded in the shooting rampage which maimed Giffords, injured another staffer and killed Giffords’ aide Gabe Zimmerman. Kelly is a former Marine, an Iraq war veteran and tea party favorite. Giffords flipped the Republican-leaning district from red to blue when Democrats captured control of the House in 2006. Kelly faced Giffords in the 2010 midterm election. Giffords then clung to victory over Kelly by a little more than a percentage point as Republicans reclaimed the House in 2010.

This is a district that sports a 25,000-plus GOP voter registration advantage. And considering the electoral climate Republicans are ready to snatch the seat back.

Except for one thing…

Special elections are just that: special. And compared to most special elections, this election is particularly precious – even among the most-exclusive of political tilts.

There’s a simple reason for this: Democrats don’t want to be perceived as exploiting the Giffords tragedy just to win a Congressional seat. And Ron Barber doesn’t want their sympathy since he was shot in the attack, too. By the same token, Republicans have tip-toed around the massacre. Recognizing the vulnerabilities of President Obama, they’ve tried to characterize Barber as a yes-man for the Democratic standard-bearer. But one wrong move and they could unleash a backlash. Voters might interpret their tactics as too calloused in a race involving a candidate who was shot in the line of duty.

Sometimes the campaign ads have been about issues. Democrats blitzed the southern Arizona district with commercials trying to tie Kelly to GOP efforts to alter senior retirement programs. Kelly returned the favor with spots claiming he’d work to protect such benefits.

And then the House Majority PAC wheeled out an ad with Kelly’s comments from the last campaign.

That’s where Kelly rails against Giffords during the 2010 race.

“She stands there with that smile and pretends to be some kind of hometown hero, “Kelly scolds. “She’s a hero of nothing.”

These commercials drew a sharp rebuke from Kelly. He was appalled that Barber supporters would purportedly abuse the Giffords tragedy for political gain.

So are the Giffords’ partisans doing just that?

There’s no question Democrats are invoking Giffords every chance they can on Barber’s behalf. There’s the imprimatur that Barber is Giffords’ proxy. For starters, he was a top Giffords’ aide. Secondly, Barber was wounded in January, 2011, as well. But he recovered and is healthy enough to soldier on with the Giffords’ banner. And then there is the de facto message from Democrats that this is “Gabby’s seat.” The implication is that Democrats “owe” this special election to Giffords to fulfill her legacy.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) made a heart-felt, fundraising appeal over the weekend on behalf of Barber for “Gabby.” Giffords stumped alongside Barber during campaign swings through the district. Barber’s campaign announced that the candidate “will accompany former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords to the polls as she casts her vote in the special election” at St. Cyril’s Catholic Church in Tucson, AZ. Note that it’s not Giffords tagging along with Barber, but the other way around.

Finally, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), the organization dedicated to electing Democrats to the House, blasted out this statement Monday night:

“Tomorrow is the crucial special election for Gabby Giffords’ seat in Congress,” read an appeal from DCCC field Director Brynne Craig. Craig asked Democrats to assist with get-out-the-vote efforts.

“We can’t afford to lose Gabby’s seat to a radical Republican who would go after everything that she stands for,” pleaded Craig. “Stand with Gabby and Ron.”

Again, the message doesn’t say that Kelly is against Barber’s policies. And the missive doesn’t say “stand with Ron and Gabby.” Giffords is mentioned up front.

In many respects, Democrats want to preserve this seat for Giffords. But in Realpolitik, they also need to win this seat.

It’s been a rough patch for Democrats. Organized labor failed to dispatch Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) in a recall last week. An abysmal unemployment report lacerated the president Friday. Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney is surging. Commerce Secretary John Bryson is now facing potential felony charges and is taking medical leave following a strange series of hit-and-run accidents in California. The euro zone is in crisis and a contagion could soon hit the U.S. shores.

Democrats need some good news. And nothing buoys the party like a win in a swing district.

But there’s more to this calculus. Democrats want to show that they can win a seat on GOP turf. They can then spin this as a potential bellwether for the fall. And if Democrats are to have a prayer at reclaiming the House this fall, they need to keep this seat blue.

But something else is a afoot.

Enter the shadow of Max Cleland.

Cleland was more than a one-term Democratic senator from Georgia.

Cleland lost two legs and an arm when a grenade exploded during the Battle of Khe Sanh in 1968. The Army awarded Cleland a Silver and Bronze star. He later served as administrator of the Veterans Administration and won a U.S. Senate seat in 1996.

But Cleland faced a tough re-election campaign in 2002.

Then-Rep. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) challenged Cleland. And after Cleland voted more than ten times against various Homeland Security measures, Chambliss’s campaign team cut one of the most-controversial political commercials in recent memory.

The spot opens with pictures of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. An announcer intones that Cleland himself runs ads “claiming to have the courage to lead” but that he’s really “just misleading.”

This drew howls from Democrats and Republicans alike. Civil rights leader and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) accused Chambliss of “a desperate attempt to assassinate the character of Max Cleland.” Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who spent six years as a prisoner of war, declared the ads were “worse than disgraceful.”

After pressure, the Chambliss camp modified the commercial by deleting the images of bin Laden and Hussein.

“I don’t have to prove my patriotism to anybody,” said the triple amputee.

Polls had Cleland leading several weeks before the race. But on election day, Chambliss won 53 percent to Cleland’s 46 percent.

In a 2009 interview with Politics Daily, Cleland said the loss lugged him into a depression and he “cried uncontrollably for two-and-a-half years.”

Cleland’s loss was nearly a decade ago. But the loss still stings Democrats. Some are introspective about how they let down their wounded colleague. Some have vowed to fight on behalf of their own who have given so much.

One of those is Ron Barber. Another one of those is Gabrielle Giffords.

“This is a little about closure,” said Giffords’ husband Mark Kelly during a Barber rally. “Closure on Gabby’s career in Congress.”

In the special election campaign, Republicans treaded lightly around the shooting spree. They fretted that a misstep could make them appear insensitive toward either Giffords or Barber. Meantime, Democrats didn’t steep their campaign appeals in the shooting, per se. But they did contour their message around Giffords – playing to people’s sympathies and her legacy.

This special election is a close one and no one’s sure who might win.

But Democrats are still haunted by Cleland’s loss in 2002. And this time, Democrats wanted to make sure they did all they could not just for one wounded politician. But two.