Gabrielle Giffords, the congresswoman shot in the head when a gunman opened fire at a political gathering in Tucson, was said to be showing remarkable signs of life and mental activity last night, as the police search for a second suspect in the shooting intensified.
Doctors said Ms Giffords had responded to simple commands after surgery to treat a bullet wound to the brain she suffered when her would-be killer opened fire at a supermarket event, killing six people.
One man is in custody, while police are seeking another who may have been an accomplice. They have still not determined whether the incident was a random atrocity or an attempted political assassination.
Police identified the suspect as Jared Lee Loughner, 22. He was overpowered at the scene after opening fire with a 9mm handgun. Still at large is a second man, possibly a relative, who was caught on CCTV and said to be white and 45-50 years old.
FBI director Robert Mueller arrived in Tucson to lead an investigation into the attack, whose victims included a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. Five others were in a serious condition and one more left hospital yesterday.
Ms Giffords, a Democrat, won re-election in the November midterm elections by just 4,000 votes, after facing an ultra-conservative opponent with Tea Party backing, who posed with firearms in his campaign literature. Among those who vigorously advocated that she be voted out of office was former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, whose Facebook account once featured a map with bullseye symbols over the constituencies of Ms Giffords and other Democrats.
Victims of the rampage include an aide to Ms Giffords, identified as 30-year-old Gabe Zimmerman, as well as a federal judge, John Roll. Also dead were Christina-Taylor Greene, who was just nine years old, Dorothy Morris, 76; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Phyllis Scheck, 79. More than a dozen bystanders were injured.
While no clear motivation had been established, Americans everywhere were left to wonder if they were witnessing the start of a new period of political violence of a kind not seen since the assassinations of the 1960s triggered by passions associated with civil rights and Vietnam. At a candelit vigil outside Ms Giffords's office, well-wishers carried placards with slogans such as "hate speech equals murder", calling for an end to the inflammatory rhetoric which has characterised much recent discourse.
For shocked members of Congress, the scale of the tragedy was too great to be easily digested. Flags were ordered at half-mast to mourn Mr Zimmerman. All legislative activity on Capitol Hill, where Republicans only last week took control of the House, was postponed, including a planned vote on a law to repeal President Barack Obama's healthcare reforms. Richard Durbin, the second most senior US Senator, echoed others last night in decrying "toxic rhetoric" which may, he added, lead individuals like the man in custody to believe that violence is an acceptable response. He did not overtly link the trend to the shootings, but did mention "Don't retreat, reload", paraphrasing the controversial slogan associated with ex-governor Sarah Palin.
Doctors at a large hospital next to Tucson's University of Arizona said Ms Giffords had undergone emergency surgery after a bullet passed through the left side of her brain from back to front. It included a procedure to temporarily remove a large section of skull to help combat swelling of the brain, which remains the biggest threat to her long-term survival.
Ms Giffords had not yet spoken and was being moved in and out of an induced medical coma. However, the hospital drew encouragement from her ability to respond to simple commands to, for instance, squeeze her hand.
"This is about as good as good can get," trauma doctor Peter Rhee said at University Medical Centre in Tucson, while warning that the patient remained in some danger.
The shock of the weekend's events were felt especially strongly in Arizona, a state that has arguably the most relaxed gun laws in the country and recently allowed citizens to carry hidden weapons without holding a permit.
Over the past year, the state has been beset by political tensions because of a law signed by Governor Jan Brewer making it easier for police to challenge and incarcerate those suspected of being illegal immigrants. Ms Giffords had condemned the law. After the Congresswoman, who is mostly a centrist, voted last March to support the healthcare reform law, windows of her Tucson office were smashed.
Yesterday US officials noted there were 42 cases of threats or violence against members of Congress in the first three months of 2010, nearly three times the 15 cases reported during the same period a year earlier. Ms Giffords was among the targets.
Equally divisive was her campaign last year. Her opponent, Jesse Kelly, posted a picture on his website featuring him in military garb and brandishing an automatic weapon.
He held fundraisers when he urged voters to join him in shooting a fully loaded M-16 rife.
However a spokesman for Mr Kelly said there was nothing to link him with the suspect.
"I don't see the connection," said John Ellinwood. "I don't know this person. We cannot find any records that he was associated with the campaign in any way. I just don't see the connection.
"Arizona is a state where people are firearms owners – this was just a deranged individual."