- The Washington Times - Monday, September 24, 2001

The National Rifle Association is divided over endorsing Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Mark L. Earley this year or staying out of the race entirely, which would be a big boost to Democrat Mark R. Warner's bid.
"We're going to wait to see what happens in the debates, see what issues come up," said Randy Kozuch, the man in charge of state lobbying for the NRA.
One decision has been made, NRA and campaign sources said: The association won't endorse Mr. Warner, leaving the choice between endorsing Mr. Earley and staying out of the race.
Hanging in the balance are maybe 100,000 votes. The association has more than 115,000 Virginia members, and thousands of other voters look to the NRA for guidance. The NRA's not endorsing anyone gives Mr. Warner a fighting chance to woo many of them.
The NRA's decision is difficult. It would like to lose the stigma of being too close to the Republican Party, and Mr. Warner is giving it every reason to make its stand in this race. But Republicans aren't making it easy, with top state leaders making it clear they expect the endorsement to go to Mr. Earley.
The debate has split the handful of lobbyists who make the decision, and the tie-breaker now rests with the organization's two top men, Executive Director Wayne LaPierre and chief lobbyist James Baker.
The problem is, Mr. Earley isn't clearly a winner, as far as the NRA goes.
"Mark Earley's got an abysmal record on guns," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, an adviser to Mr. Warner who sat in all of the campaign's meetings with the NRA. "Besides gun rationing, he supported registration for mom-and-pop gun collectors at gun shows throughout the commonwealth. He wanted to extend the waiting period to an unlimited time on semiautomatic sporting rifles, such as Browning, Remington and Winchester, which make up about a third of the deer rifles in Virginia. It's easy to understand why the NRA is not jumping up and down for this guy."
Mr. Warner met with top NRA officials last month, and members of his campaign have had other meetings with the association to try to convince it that other than prohibiting guns in recreation centers, he won't sign any new gun restrictions.
Republicans respond by saying Mr. Warner, who has never served in office and has no voting record, is a late-comer to gun rights. They point to comments Mr. Warner made in the past, including his criticism of former Gov. George F. Allen as someone who would block gun control.
Key Virginia Republicans such as Gov. James S. Gilmore III, who also is chairman of the Republican National Committee, and House Speaker S. Vance Wilkins Jr. have also reminded the NRA how good the GOP has been to them in Virginia.
Endorsing Mr. Earley wasn't a tough call for other gun-rights supporters such as the Virginia Shooting Sports Association.
" I think we know more of Mark Earley's track record than Mark Warner. Warner, in somewhat Clintonesque fashion, changes tune. When he ran for Senate [in 1996], he sounded different on the issue than he does now," said Steve Canale, the association's president.
The danger is twofold for Republicans if the NRA doesn't endorse Mr. Earley. Voters who favor gun rights may decide they have no horse in the race and stay home on Nov. 6, handing Mr. Warner a vote by default. That will also hurt the two Republicans on the ticket, who the NRA wants in office.
NRA sources said they have decided to endorse the rest of the GOP ticket Jay Katzen over Democrat Tim Kaine in the lieutenant governor's race, and Jerry Kilgore over Democrat A. Donald McEachin in the attorney general's race.
Virginia Democrats say the governor's race is the place for the NRA to prove it is not just an arm of the Republican Party.
Lt. Gov. John H. Hager, also a Republican, believes that's why he lost the endorsement to his Democratic opponent in 1997, when the NRA endorsed both Mr. Gilmore and Mr. Earley.
Since winning the NRA's endorsement that year, though, Mr. Earley hasn't had many opportunities to show himself to be a friend or foe of the NRA. About the only signal he's sent was when he appointed former state Attorney General Richard Cullen as his campaign chairman. While a U.S. attorney, Mr. Cullen teamed up with former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder to push through the one-gun-a-month bill. Even Mr. Earley's supporters agree that's a big red flag to the NRA.
On the other hand, Mr. Warner has surrounded himself with people such as Mr. Saunders and Sherry Crumley, who heads Sportsmen for Warner and whose name is golden in hunting circles, who say Mr. Earley can't be trusted on the issue.
But Mr. Wilkins says it comes down to the two parties and their bases. He said the Democratic base generally opposes Second Amendment rights, while Republicans support them and when push comes to shove, whoever is governor will stick with his base.
"It's a big risk to go with Mark Warner because his public statements have been on the other side of the issue most of the time. I can assure you, if he'd been in Richmond in the legislature he would have voted for one-gun-a-month," Mr. Wilkins says.

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