The National Rifle Association, which once vowed to make ousting President Clinton its top priority in the 1996 campaigns, is so enraged by Republican presidential contender Robert J. Dole's recent comments on assault weapons that it may sit out the presidential race and concentrate instead on congressional elections, a top official said this week.
Tanya Metaksa, the NRA's chief lobbyist, said the group's 3 million members are "disappointed and disillusioned" with Dole. She noted that the NRA's board of directors is scheduled to meet in early September to decide whether to endorse Dole.
"I'm sure they will take everything into consideration," she said. "That decision . . . will be made as events unfold. But let me tell you where our members are. Our members are asking us to help them elect a Second Amendment majority in Congress."
Dole promised the NRA last year that repealing the "ill-conceived" ban on assault weapons, passed by Congress in 1994, was one of his top legislative priorities. But he never scheduled a vote on repeal when he was Senate majority leader.
Last week, when Dole backed off that position and said the country had "moved beyond the debate" over whether to outlaw the guns, the NRA appeared understanding. Metaksa said it made sense that repeal of assault weapons was no longer on Dole's agenda because he had left the Senate.
"I didn't hear him say that he would veto a repeal of the gun ban should it get on his desk" as president, Metaksa said.
But two days later, Dole came close to saying just that. He told CBS News that if "repeal came to me I wouldn't sign it. I'd probably veto it too."
The NRA, alarmed by Dole's comments, posted a "special alert" to its members on its Internet site, asking them to call the Dole campaign and the Republican National Committee. "Express your personal views about this crucial turn of events, and let's redouble our efforts to elect a veto-proof, pro-Constitution majority in both House and Senate," the NRA said.
The Dole campaign said it had not received an unusual number of calls from NRA members but the RNC said that about one-fourth of its calls this week were on assault weapons.
Dole spokeswoman Christina Martin said she could not elaborate on why Dole would veto repeal of a measure that he believes is "not very sound policy," as he told Larry King Monday night. Martin said Dole's comments to CBS reflected his current thinking on the veto issue.
Robert Walker of Handgun Control Inc. called Dole's statement that he would probably veto a repeal "a very, very significant shift. It's one thing to suggest as he said in his speech a week ago that it's time to move beyond the assault weapons ban. It's quite another to suggest he would veto repeal."
Walker, who called on Dole to say flatly that he would veto any repeal, said Dole's remarks were "a devastating defeat for the National Rifle Association. . . . I think they were hoping to be a major player in this campaign but they no longer have any horse in this race."
The NRA has endorsed a presidential candidate only three times, but that backing has come in three of the last four elections. The group twice endorsed Ronald Reagan and backed George Bush in 1988.
But in 1992, angered by a Bush executive order banning the import of some semiautomatic firearms and his failure to express staunch opposition to the Brady bill waiting period for handgun purchases, the NRA sat out the presidential campaign.
At the NRA convention in April, the group said its priority in the fall elections would be defeating Clinton and touted Dole as a challenger who "wears two Purple Hearts and the Bronze Star with an oak leaf cluster" and supports the right to bear arms.
In an interview Tuesday, Metaksa called Clinton "the most anti-Second Amendment freedoms president we've ever had."
A Dole campaign official called an NRA endorsement "an extraordinary event," and said that "while we do not have an expectation of getting the endorsement, it's certainly something we like to have." But the official said even without an endorsement, "One thing that's well known is Bob Dole's support of the Second Amendment."