Democratic presidential candidates are distancing themselves from tough gun control, reversing a decade of rhetoric and advocacy by the Democratic Party in favor of federal regulation of firearms.

Most Democratic White House hopefuls rarely highlight gun control in their campaigns, and none of the candidates who routinely poll near the top is calling for the licensing of new handgun owners, a central theme of then-Vice President Al Gore's winning primary campaign in 2000.

Howard Dean, the early front-runner this year, proudly tells audiences that the National Rifle Association endorsed him as governor of Vermont. As president, Dean said he would leave most gun laws to the states. The federal government, Dean said in an interview here, should not "inflict regulations" on states such as Montana and Vermont, where gun crime is not a big problem. New York and California "can have as much gun control as they want," but those states -- and not the federal government -- should make that determination, he said.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, a longtime gun control advocate, is careful to highlight his support for law-abiding gun owners. The Missouri Democrat said he is not interested in giving the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives more authority to investigate gun crimes, a top priority for the gun control activist. "They have enough," he said in an interview.

As a result, Democratic strategists and several of the candidates themselves predict the debate over gun laws in this campaign will be less divisive. Democrats might fight for narrow proposals to make guns safer and more difficult for children and criminals to obtain, they said, yet voters are likely to hear as much about enforcing existing gun laws as creating new ones -- a position Republicans and the NRA have pushed for years.

"What you are seeing . . . is a sea change" from the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Gore championed several major gun laws -- and paid a big political price for it, said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA.

"It's very important for us as Democrats to understand that where I come from guns are about a lot more than guns themselves," said Sen. John Edwards (N.C.), one of nine Democrats seeking the presidency. "They are about independence. For a lot of people who work hard for a living, one of the few things they feel they have any control over is whether they can buy a gun and hunt. They don't want people messing with that, which I understand."

The change holds true in Congress, too. Many Democrats are playing down gun issues there, and several, including Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), are co-sponsoring a bill to shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits, a top NRA priority for the 108th Congress. In the 2002 congressional races, 94 percent of NRA-endorsed candidates won.

In the presidential race, several candidates said the gun issue contributed to Gore's defeat in 2000 and could backfire on the party again next year if Democrats do not quickly lose their anti-gun image.

Indeed, the Democrats' shift away from gun control is rooted more in politics than in a belief that gun laws do not help prevent crime and death, several Democrats said privately. It started after the 1994 elections, when Democrats lost control of the House and watched such veterans as then-Speaker Thomas S. Foley (Wash.) get ousted after the Democratic-controlled House passed legislation making it illegal to "manufacture, transfer or possess" 19 semiautomatic firearms. The bill, which Clinton signed into law, does not apply to the sale or possession of weapons legally held before the ban took effect.

Surveys showed that the gun issue played a huge if not decisive role in ending the Democrats' decades-long rule of the House that year. Still, many Democrats continued to target guns as a key contributor to violence and death, a belief reinforced for many by the 1999 Columbine shootings. Gore was among those leading the charge for new restrictions.

In the 2000 presidential primaries, Gore and former senator Bill Bradley (N.J.) engaged in what sounded to some like a bidding war for who would clamp down the hardest on handguns. Gore tried to distance himself from the gun issue in the waning months of his campaign against George W. Bush, but it was too late.

A key turning point in the debate over federal laws regulating guns came on election night, when Gore lost West Virginia, Arkansas and even his home state of Tennessee. Many of today's candidates blame the gun issue, in part, for Gore's defeat in those states and others. Gephardt said there's "no doubt" it "hurt" Gore.

As the candidates survey the map for 2004, they find that most competitive states are home to thousands of hunters and other gun owners -- states such as Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Mexico. Moreover, many of the gun owners in these swing states belong to labor unions, a base of the Democratic Party. Based on NRA estimates, LaPierre said as much as three-quarters of union households in some targeted states include gun owners. Some union strategists have privately told the candidates that the only way to win in these states is to back off guns.

Some gun control advocacy groups said Democrats are misreading the politics, pointing to rural states with high populations of gun owners such as Michigan, which Gore won. Several candidates and strategists disagreed with that assessment, however.

"The gun issue is the silent killer" of Democrats, said Deborah Barron of Americans for Gun Safety, which is tutoring candidates on the gun issue. "Democrats will be extinct in red states unless" they change how gun owners view their party. "Red states" is political shorthand for states President Bush won. These red states have a significantly higher percentage of gun owners than the states Gore won in 2000, studies show.

In a new national poll, Americans for Gun Safety -- which was created by the founder of Monster.com -- found gun owners by huge margins see Democrats as the party that wants to ban guns and blame law-abiding gun owners for crime problems.

The centrist Democratic Leadership Council, which helped moderate the party's image on trade and taxes in the 1990s, is teaming with Americans for Gun Safety to try to do the same for gun control. Dean and most of his rivals have privately consulted with one or both of the groups on a new approach. Former American for Guns Safety spokesman Matt Bennett recently signed on as communications director for retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark.

The two groups do not think the candidates should run away from the issue by staying silent, which many are doing on the campaign trail. Instead, the groups are pushing a new mantra some of the candidates are adopting -- "with gun rights come responsibility."

In an interview, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), Gore's running mate in 2000, said, "People have a right to own and purchase guns . . . but it comes with responsibility."

Al From, who runs the DLC, recently said Democrats can turn the gun issue into an advantage if they vigorously push for gun safety and rigorous enforcement of laws while reassuring voters they stand firmly in support of the Second Amendment. The idea is to move away from broad restrictions such as mandatory registration and toward more popular and narrower ideas aimed at making guns safer and keeping them away from criminals and children, which polls show voters widely support.

In some ways, the shift is more rhetorical than substantive. Consider Dean.

While Dean appeals to the Democrats' liberal base, including many gun control activists, he portrays himself as the strongest defender of gun owners in the field.

Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry accused Dean of going overboard by playing to the NRA. "I don't think the Democratic Party should be the party of the NRA or walk away from our values for expedient political reasons," Kerry said.

Yet "the irony with Dean is his policy positions on guns is exactly the same as" those of his rivals, said Americans for Gun Safety policy director Jim Kessler, who surveyed the candidates' views on gun topics. "But he is making a point about his support for Second Amendment rights and vigorous enforcement. The reason? This works as a strategy."

Still, the major candidates are under constant pressure from many party activists, including major donors in the Democratic bastions of New York and California, not to retreat from the gun fight altogether.

The candidates do oppose the gun liability bill Daschle supports and favor tougher background checks on people buying firearms at gun shows (this is often referred to as "closing the gun show loophole"). Lieberman is a co-sponsor of a gun show bill.

The big test for the candidates will come as Congress begins considering whether to extend the 1994 ban on some semiautomatic weapons, which will expire next year. Some congressional Democrats want to make the law permanent and fold additional gun models and the importation of high-ammunition clips into the ban. But Bush favors a straight extension -- and that is a position many of the candidates sound willing to settle for.

"I would be happy to just extend it," Gephardt said.

Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore tried to distance himself from the gun issue in the waning months of the 2000 campaign.