By Tim Devaney and Jesse Byrnes - 04/10/15 06:47 AM EDT
Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioOvernight Healthcare: Rubio presses Obama to spend Zika money | FDA moves ahead with trans fat ban The Trail 2016: Her big night Dem lawmakers rally Muslims against Trump MORE will speak at the National Rifle Association's (NRA) annual convention on Friday just days before he is expected to formally enter the race for the White House.
The Florida Republican is one of a slew of GOP presidential hopefuls trekking to Nashville to speak to the key group, but his appearance may be more important than those of his competitors.
Rubio is expected to announce his White House bid on Monday, and Friday’s remarks to the NRA are a last, high-profile chance for him to shore up support on the right before one of the biggest days in his political career.
Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are the two biggest 2016 GOP names who are not attending.
Rubio has taken pains in recent years to highlight his support for the Second Amendment.
All of the GOP candidates have strong ratings from the pro-gun rights group, but Rubio’s grade was recently boosted from a B+ to an A after he introduced the Second Amendment Enforcement Act to roll back some of the most controversial gun laws in Washington, D.C.
The gun bill would make it easier for residents and tourists to carry concealed weapons in the District, and shoot down the city’s controversial gun registry.
The NRA updated Rubio’s rating ahead of schedule.
“Rubio has a perfect voting record in the Senate,” NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker told The Hill. “His rating reflects five years worth of votes in defense of the Second Amendment.”
The new rating and his introduction of the D.C. gun bill have been noticed by the political class.
“Rubio clearly felt the need to shore up his gun credentials, particularly with his looming presidential campaign,” said Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist who served as an adviser to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in 2008.
“One of the things Rubio doesn’t want is for someone to say, ‘Jeez, Marco, you’re great on everything else, but you’re soft on guns,’” O’Connell said.
Rubio has consistently voted with the NRA on key gun issues, including in 2013 when the Senate considered strengthening background checks on gun purchases in the wake of the Newtown, Conn., killings of 20 school children and six adults.
Along with Cruz and Paul, Rubio voted against the tougher rules.
The NRA says that it is Rubio’s overall record that led the group to upgrade Rubio’s rating. And the senator will likely want to tout that legislative history as he begins his campaign.
“When you look at voting issues conservatives care about, the Second Amendment is a big one,” said Matt Mackowiak, a Republican consultant.
He called the NRA convention “a safe place to go out and remind gun activists that you’re a Second Amendment supporter.”
Rubio’s stock in the GOP 2016 race is rising.
When Bush announced he was exploring a campaign, many thought it could be curtains for Rubio.
But he’s made inroads with key donors, while conservative pundit and columnist Charles Krauthammer recently gave him better odds than Bush — or any other GOP candidate — of winning.
A test for Rubio will be convincing the right that he is the best candidate for the job, which highlights the importance of the NRA visit.
Conservatives soured on him after he backed a Senate immigration reform bill in 2013, and he’ll need to overcome those ill feelings to win his party’s nomination.
Foreign policy, not guns, is expected to be the centerpiece of Rubio’s campaign.
But reminding conservatives that he’s a strong defender of gun rights could help the Floridian.
During last year's NRA convention, Rubio invoked guns as part of the American dream. Attaining that dream is likely to be the broader focus of the 2016 message he will deliver Monday in Miami.
Michael Hammond, legislative counsel for Gun Owners of America, voiced opposition to the immigration bill Rubio supported but cast him as a top advocate for gun owners, pointing to Rubio's efforts to defund a Justice Department initiative critics say cuts off credit and banking to firearm manufacturers and dealers. Hammond also highlighted Rubio's recent work regarding D.C. gun laws.
Those moves on D.C. laws, which are fiercely opposed by the White House, have also opened up Rubio to criticism.
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the Democratic congresswoman representing the District, suggested Rubio’s stance was meant to help him get elected at the city’s expense, pointing to the NRA boosting Rubio's rating on gun rights shortly after he introduced the bill.
“It’s a cheap trick that might work with the NRA, but it’s not very presidential,” Norton told The Hill. “He used us in order to right himself with the NRA.”
The NRA disputes that suggestion. Rubio's rating hadn't been updated since before he took office, the group asserted, and the higher rating is based on the entirety of his record in Congress.
Regardless of criticism from the left, Friday's NRA event allows Rubio to discuss his support for gun rights before thousands of attendees just days before announcing his presidential campaign.
“NRA members are savvy and informed voters who appreciate the opportunity to hear directly from politicians on important issues of the day,” Baker said.
“It is also a great opportunity for candidates and would be candidates to address our members directly.”