By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 17, 2008
LOUISVILLE, May 16 -- Sen. John McCain, once derided as one of the "premier flag-carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment" by the National Rifle Association, enthusiastically embraced the group's pro-gun agenda at its annual convention here Friday.
In front of a crowd of about 6,000 people who gave him two standing ovations, McCain also mocked Democratic Sen. Barack Obama as a liberal, anti-gun politician and made a direct appeal to the "bitter" voters Obama said were clinging to their "guns or religion" to soothe concerns about their economic struggles.
"The Second Amendment isn't some archaic custom that matters only to rural Americans who find solace in firearms out of frustration with their economic circumstances," McCain said.
McCain, who is viewed with suspicion among many gun owners because of his efforts to reform campaign finance laws and his decade-long battle with the NRA over background checks at gun shows, sought to mollify his conservative critics by declaring fealty to the Second Amendment. The presumptive GOP nominee did not abandon his support for background checks, but he tried to cast his disagreements with the NRA as isolated cases separate from otherwise solid support for gun rights.
"For more than two decades, I've opposed efforts to ban guns, ban ammunition, ban magazines and dismiss gun owners as some kind of fringe group unwelcome in 'modern' America," McCain said. The Second Amendment, he said, "guarantees an individual right to keep and bear arms. To argue anything else is to reject the clear meaning of our Founding Fathers."
The NRA appearance continued the political Ping-Pong game that is McCain's campaign, as he seeks to distance himself from President Bush and his party one day and then court the conservative Republican base the next.
Last week's pledge to appoint conservative jurists was followed quickly by Monday's break with Republican orthodoxy on global warming. On Thursday, he vowed to end "hyper-partisanship" and work with Democrats, but on Friday, he joined Oliver North, Karl Rove and Mike Huckabee as a featured speaker at the gun show.
It is a delicate and deliberate balancing act that aides say is designed to reinforce the maverick brand that separates McCain from the rest of his party without angering the traditional core of conservative Republicans. McCain's top strategists say that their candidate will not win in November merely by rallying the GOP base but that he cannot win without it, either.
Key to running against Obama, they say, is attracting white working-class Democrats -- many of whom are gun owners -- to the Republican column. "We're not trying to get a majority of blue-collar Democrats. But if McCain were to get, say, 20 percent nationally of blue-collar Democrats, he wins," McCain senior adviser Charlie Black told reporters recently. But, he added: "We know we have to unify our base and get them to turn out."
Democrats responded quickly to the event, accusing McCain of seeking the blessing of the NRA for crassly political reasons. McCain "definitely has his full pander on in Louisville today," said Democratic National Committee spokesman Damien LaVera.
At the gun show, Huckabee, a former rival for the Republican nomination who is known for his sense of humor, made an awkward joke after hearing a loud sound during his speech. He quipped, "That was Barack Obama. He just tripped off a chair. He's getting ready to speak and somebody aimed a gun at him and he -- he dove for the floor."
During his speech, McCain ridiculed Obama's knowledge of guns and hunting by quoting a recent comment Obama made about using a "six-shooter" in a duck blind. "Someone should tell Senator Obama that ducks are usually hunted with shotguns," McCain said to laughter and applause.
McCain accused Obama and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of hiding their true stripes by avoiding any mention of gun-control measures they support as they campaign. "If either Senator Clinton or Senator Obama is elected president, the rights of law-abiding gun owners will be at risk," McCain told NRA members.
But McCain himself is viewed with alarm by plenty of gun owners and many in the gun-rights leadership. In 2001, he championed efforts in several states to close the gun-show loophole that allows firearms to be purchased at the shows without background checks.
His starring appearance in several television ads on behalf of gun-control referendums, and his later sponsorship of a federal gun-show bill, caused the NRA to label him an enemy of gun rights and liberal groups to proclaim him one of their favorite lawmakers.
"John McCain was our number one hero," said Jim Kessler, a founder of Americans for Gun Safety, a gun-control group for which McCain filmed a movie trailer and for which his campaign manager, Rick Davis, was a consultant.
"They were bitter enemies, the NRA and John McCain," Kessler said. "They spent month after month just going after him."
In 2001, upset about the effect McCain's campaign finance reform would have on the NRA's ability to influence elections, former NRA head Wayne LaPierre, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal, asked NRA members: "Is it possible that John McCain thinks you have too much freedom?"
This week, however, LaPierre seemed to have put the matter behind him. "I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree on those."
Campaigning in West Virginia before the NRA speech, McCain said that he wholeheartedly supports the NRA and its goals and that he is looking forward to again receiving the group's endorsement.
"We've had a disagreement on the gun-show loophole. That is a specific disagreement on an aspect that I believe was a way for people who shouldn't acquire weapons or guns to do so," he said.
In his speech, McCain vowed to protect the rights of gun owners by appointing judges and Supreme Court justices who would respect the wishes of the nation's founders.