Leading GOP candidates causing ‘angst’ among 2nd Amendment organizations

Anti-gun control groups, sure to be back on the defensive after yesterday’s massacre at Virginia Tech, say they are having a hard time solidly backing any of the top-tier Republican presidential candidates.

The only 2008 presidential candidates who have earned solid backing from anti-gun control groups are a handful of Republicans struggling to get their campaigns off the ground — and one Democrat.

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The first tier of Republican candidates, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, all have been inconsistent on the issues near and dear to gun owners’ hearts, activists said.

Only Republican Reps. Ron Paul (Texas), Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, as well as Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson (N.M.), have not been faulted by such groups.

“I think there’s a lot of disappointment out there,” said Erich Pratt, an official with Gun Owners of America (GOA). “There’s a lot of angst.”

Pratt said his group is stingy with its endorsements. The last presidential candidate they backed was Ronald Reagan, and given the current leaders of the field, they might not endorse this time, either.

The group will be busy trying to educate its 300,000-plus members as to what it sees as the candidates’ shortcomings, Pratt said.

National Rifle Association (NRA) officials declined to talk on the record about specific candidates, but one official said the group has been “courted” by candidates on both sides of the aisle.

The official said the group’s more than 4 million members are a “much sought-after voting bloc.”

“They’re loyal, they’re savvy and they vote,” the official said.

That bloc is particularly important to Republicans in the early-voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But activists with those groups say each leading candidate has his flaws.

Romney’s missteps on the issue have been well documented of late.

After claiming to be a lifelong NRA member, he admitted to having joined only last summer.

The former governor had a similar gaffe recently when he told a voter in New Hampshire he had been hunting his whole life — before campaign aides conceded he had actually only been twice.

The campaign did say, however, the governor had been hunting rabbits and squirrels for years.

These and other “oops” moments, combined with Romney’s support of the Brady Bill and an assault-weapons ban during his 1994 Senate campaign, have led Pratt and others to question Romney’s sincerity on the issue.

“He’s a big question mark,” Pratt said. “He [has] been acting and speaking like someone from New England, and now all of a sudden he’s singing a different tune.”

For his part, Romney has told audiences he intends to seek the NRA’s endorsement. The Democratic National Committee (DNC) was quick to seize on Romney’s missteps.

“While Romney has told audiences that he is ‘after the NRA’s endorsement,’ he dodged the NRA convention in St. Louis [last week] despite being in town at the same time for a fundraiser,” a DNC release said.

In response, Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said in an e-mail that Romney is a strong backer of the Second Amendment.

“Gov. Romney strongly believes in the constitutional freedoms and protections that are enshrined in the Second Amendment,” Madden said. “Groups that are dedicated to protecting Second Amendment rights understand Gov. Romney’s commitment to preserving them and recognize his outreach on these issues.”

When asked whether the campaign had suffered missteps in trying to promote its Second Amendment support, Madden said, “The important principles involved in any discussion of the Second Amendment can sometimes be cast aside in the coverage of it.”

Madden added: “Gov. Romney’s commitment to good policy on these issues is readily apparent to those who are about the issue. That’s what is most important to remember and take notice of.”

Giuliani faces similar scrutiny and mistrust from Second Amendment groups.

While in office, the former mayor supported a number of gun-control plans, officially aimed at reducing New York’s high crime rate.

“Rudy Giuliani is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment,” his campaign website says. “When he was Mayor of a city suffering an average of almost 2,000 murders a year, he protected people by getting illegal handguns out of the hands of criminals. As a result, shootings fell by 72 percent, and the murder rate was cut by two-thirds.”  

But the website also states, “Rudy understands that what works in New York doesn’t necessarily work in Mississippi or Montana.”

The Giuliani campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Meanwhile, McCain’s troubles with Second Amendment groups stem from his authorship of the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act of 2002, also known as McCain-Feingold.

A wide range of conservative national lobbying groups, among them the NRA, were infuriated by what they said was a restriction on free speech.

That fury has endured, and McCain still has enemies in the NRA and other gun-rights groups despite his consistently conservative voting record on gun owners’ issues.

Former Rep. Chuck Douglas (R-N.H.), an NRA member and vice chairman of McCain’s steering committee, said that while national lobbying groups like the NRA are still angry about McCain-Feingold, individual gun owners will recognize an ally in McCain because of his record.

“That’s the one issue where the NRA as an institution has a beef with him,” Douglas said.

Douglas said McCain was the first candidate to campaign in a New Hampshire gun store. Last weekend, the campaign had workers present at a gun show in Concord.

“When it comes down to it, voters across the country realize that John McCain has worked to protect their right to bear arms,” McCain spokesman Danny Diaz said.

He added: “Sen. McCain has a lifetime record of standing up for gun rights and gun owners, and they know that he is an advocate on their behalf.”

When asked about any lingering resentment groups like the NRA might harbor over McCain-Feingold, Diaz said, “Today, as a result of the most recent election, more people recognize the negative impact special interest money has in politics and Sen. McCain’s efforts to fight it. Sen. McCain is taking his message directly to the people.”

The campaign, in a not-so-thinly veiled shot at Team Romney, last week introduced their coalition of New Hampshire sportsmen supporting McCain.

There is also the case of Richardson. As the only Democratic candidate to win an A grade from the NRA during his last gubernatorial race, his candidacy might force the group to reexamine its endorsement habits should he win the nomination and face off against one of the less popular Republicans.

“If Bill Richardson ran against Giuliani, that would be something people would have to look at,” Douglas said.

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