By Mike Lillis - 01/19/13 05:05 PM EST
Facing its toughest fight over gun reform in decades, the National Rifle Association (NRA) has stumbled out of the gate.
The powerful gun-lobby group responded to last month's Newtown, Conn., massacre with a defiant press conference calling for more guns in schools, then doubled down this week with an in-your-face web ad that drew President Obama's young daughters into the fray.
Yet the public relations missteps have given Obama an opening in the difficult fight by making him look like the more reasonable party, even as it has made the NRA look out of touch with mainstream thinking.
The NRA's web ad in particular – which called President Obama an “elitist hypocrite” because he's pushing tougher gun laws while his daughters receive armed protection – led Republicans to lash out at the group.
“Are the president's kids more important than yours? Then why is he skeptical about putting armed security in our schools when his kids are protected by armed guards at their school?" the ads asks.
“To talk about the president’s children, or any public officer’s children, who have –not by their own choice, but by requirement – to have protection, and to use that somehow to try to make a political point is reprehensible,” said New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who is seen as a 2016 White House contender.
“Get to the real issues. Don’t be dragging people’s children into this,” the Republican added in comments Thursday. “It’s wrong, and I think it demeans them [the NRA] and it makes them less of a valid, trusted source of information on the real issues.”
Television commentator Joe Scarborough, a former GOP member of the House, hammered the group's leaders for creating a “fringe organization.”
“Their children have targets on their backs and the NRA is putting something out like [this]? What's wrong with these people?” Scarborough said Wednesday on his “Morning Joe” program on MSNBC.
“They need new leadership is what they need. Their leadership has dragged them over the cliff, they are now a fringe organization,” added Scarborough, who routinely mentions he maintained an A-rating from the NRA through his tenure in the House. “What the NRA once was, it no longer is. This extremism is so frightening, and just over, over, over the line.”
Despite the criticisms, there's some evidence that the NRA's tone hasn't harmed the group – and in fact has benefited it. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll released Thursday found that 41 percent of Americans view the group positively – the same figure from a year ago – although the percentage of respondents with a negative view rose from 29 to 34 percent over the same span.
There’s also support for the group’s positions. While some polls suggest growing support for gun control measures, a Washington Post/ABC News poll released this week found 55 percent of respondents support the group’s call to put armed guards in every school, a position Obama viewed with skepticism.
Also, the NRA claims that its membership has jumped by a whopping 250,000 people – up to 4.25 million – since the Newtown rampage, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Yet the sharp, combative tone has also turned members of both parties away from the group.
Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a father of six, blasted the web ad, saying it's "very important our children not be used to forward a political cause.” Rep. Jon Runyan (R-N.J.) piled on, saying the ad is “at the very least inappropriate and diverts the discussion away from the important issues.”
Some critics and supporters of the group say its no-holds-barred support for the Second Amendment — reflected in CEO Wayne LaPierre’s initial, combative speech one week after the Newtown killings — is a strength of the lobbying group.
“The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” LaPierre said at the Washington event responding to Newtown. “I call on Congress today to act immediately to appropriate whatever is necessary to put armed police officers in every single school in this nation – and to do it now.”
The speech led GOP pollster Frank Luntz to say, "I don’t think the NRA is listening."
Since the CEO’s fiery Dec. 21 speech, however, the public face of the NRA has shifted to become David Keene, the president of the group, whose remarks have tended to be more reserved than LaPierre's, at least in tone.
Keene explained on NBC's "Today" show Thursday that the web ad “wasn't about the president's daughters” but was focused on “how to keep children safe.”
Matt Mackowiak, a Texas-based Republican consultant who has worked for a number of GOP policymakers, argued that the NRA remains a political powerhouse, but conceded the group has “performed in an uneven fashion” while under the intense spotlight that followed the Newtown shooting, a tragedy that renewed a debate over gun violence after a lone gunman killed 27 people, including 20 children.
“The NRA has succeeded at growing its membership during a time of perceived threat and stress,” Mackowiak said in an email, “but their initial response (the clumsy press conference) and the now-viral hypocrisy ad were both disappointing.”
Gun reformers, meanwhile, are hoping the NRA's aggressive messaging strategy this year will alienate the public and propel Obama's reform package through Congress.
“That press conference and the ads play into the narrative that they've become unhinged," Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, which advocates for tougher gun laws, said Friday in a phone interview.
“The NRA's definitely not helping themselves with this.”