Did heated rhetoric play a role in the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords?

The 8th District in southern Arizona represented by U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords comprises liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands, which means moderation is a must. But it also means that spirits and tensions run high.

Giffords’ office in Tucson was ransacked in March following her vote for health care reform — a vote the Democrat told reporters that she would cast even if it meant her career. She refused to be cowed, but she also took aim at the hyped rhetoric. She cast the back-and-forth as part of the democratic process.

“We’ve had hundreds and hundreds of protesters over the course of the last several months,” Giffords told MSNBC after the middle-of-the-night attack, which left a window shattered. “Our democracy is a light — really a beacon — around the world because we effect change at the ballot box and not because of these outbursts of violence and the yelling.”

She called on all leaders — of both parties and in the community — to consider how they cast their arguments. Giffords, who last week took the oath of office for her third term, noted how her re-election bid was being treated by 2012 GOP presidential hopeful Sarah Palin.

“The way she has it depicted is that she has the crosshairs of a gunsight over our district,” Giffords said. “When people do that they’ve got to realize there’s consequences to that action.”

Palin removed the chart from her Facebook page after news of the Jan. 8 shootings of 20 at a Tucson shopping center that left Giffords in critical condition and extended her prayers to the Arizona lawmaker and the other victims. Six people were killed in the attack.

Such gestures were not likely to tamp down suggestions that the fevered rhetoric from some right-wing precincts helped create the atmosphere that led to the shooting allegedly by Jared Lee Loughner, 22, who was said to be “mentally unstable.”

“You have a vice-presidential candidate for a major party who runs ads with targets saying ‘remove Gabby Giffords’ and a young man with issues,” Mark Rubin, a Tucson-area lawyer and a Democratic Party activist, told JTA. “You’re going to spend a long time convincing me it doesn’t have something to do with it.”

Spencer Giffords, the congresswoman’s father, wept when the New York Post asked him if his daughter had enemies.

“The Tea Party,” he said, referring to the conservative insurgency that targeted her, resulting in one of last November’s closest elections.

Local Tea Party leaders condemned the attack, but also reportedly rejected the notion that they needed to tone down their rhetoric.

Giffords supported gun rights, but it didn’t stop opponents from identifying her with her party’s efforts to increase restrictions on possession. Police removed a man carrying a gun from Giffords’ meet-the-voters event in 2009, and her opponent, Republican Jesse Kelly, hosted a campaign event titled “Get on Target for Victory in November,” by inviting supporters to shoot an M16 with him.

“One suspect, now in custody, may be directly responsible for this crime,” the National Jewish Democratic Council said in a statement. “But it is fair to say — in today’s political climate, and given today’s political rhetoric — that many have contributed to the building levels of vitriol in our political discourse that have surely contributed to the atmosphere in which this event transpired.”

Conservatives were quick to say that drawing lines between the attack and heated rhetoric was premature.

“Fair?” Jennifer Rubin said on her Washington Post blog. “How so, and on what evidence is this string of flimsy assumptions based?”

It wasn’t just Democrats, however — the Reform movement and the JCPA, a public policy umbrella body bringing together Jewish groups across the religious and political spectrum, also made the connection.

“While we do not know the motives for today’s attack, we do know that it cannot be viewed apart from the climate of violence and the degradation of civil society that are anathema to democracy,” the JCPA said Saturday.

Jonathan Rothschild, Giffords’ longtime friend, said he wanted to know more before he made a final judgment.

Giffords during her campaign “suffered vitriolic hate rhetoric,” he said, “but you don’t know how much this enters into it.”

Ron Kampeas is JTA’s Washington bureau chief.