NRA now eyeing role in GOP primaries

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The National Rifle Association, which did not endorse President Bush in 2000 and 2004 until just a month before the general election, is considering stepping into the presidential campaign fray early next year during the primary season, the group’s chief lobbyist says.

While the NRA waited until October in each of the past two presidential election years before endorsing a candidate, the group plans to take a more high-profile role early in the 2008 Republican nomination process.

“Historically, we have not gotten involved in primaries. We traditionally wait until after the conventions,” said Chris Cox, head lobbyist for the NRA. “That being said, given the candidates and the process and the front-loading of the primaries, it is a possibility that we could get involved in one of these presidential primaries.”

Republican presidential hopefuls know of the 4-million-member group’s power. On Friday, they paraded before 500 lifetime NRA members at a conference in Washington, each making a pitch for why they are the best candidate to protect the rights of gun owners.

Former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, who earned an “A” rating from the NRA during his time in the Senate, was the group’s favorite. Meanwhile, the GOP front-runner, Rudolph W. Giuliani, left members underwhelmed.

“He’s a flip-flopper,” said Ed Hanson of Wisconsin, shortly after listening to the former New York City mayor’s speech at the Capital Hilton. “He should say one thing and stick with it. Say what you mean and stand by it. He hasn’t done that. And that’s a problem — a huge problem.”

Interviews with a dozen others who attended the star-studded event — all lifetime members, some wearing NRA hats, others in camouflage gear — found a consensus: Mr. Giuliani is not their man.

Asked whether the candidate’s speech had swayed his view of Mr. Giuliani, NRA member Tom Crum said, “No, not at all.”

“He was too wishy-washy,” said the 69-year-old Orlando Park, Ill., resident. “At the end of his speech, he said, ‘I think I’m beginning to see.’ That bothers me a lot.”

Mr. Giuliani has a long record on guns, from advocating waiting periods for purchases and national licensing — two ideas vehemently opposed by NRA members — to joining a lawsuit against gun manufacturers.

While Mr. Cox would not comment directly on Mr. Giuliani’s record, he said: “NRA members are not only very loyal, but very savvy. They wil look at not only what a politician says today, but positions they’ve taken in the past and commitments they’ve made for the future.”

Dave Workman, senior editor of Gun Week magazine, said there simply isn’t any room for nuance on gun rights.

“You don’t support the Second Amendment; you live the Second Amendment,” he said. “The firearms community’s got a long memory.”

The NRA did not endorse a GOP presidential candidate in 1992 or 1996 — and the Republican candidate lost each time. On the other hand, the group’s endorsement of Mr. Bush — along with the millions of dollars it provided for ads, phone banks and other get-out-the-vote efforts — helped spur two victories.

Mr. Workman, whose magazine is published by the Washington state group called Second Amendment Foundation, recalled how then-Vice President George H. W. Bush vowed in 1988 to protect gun rights, but the next year as president issued an executive order banning five types of imported semiautomatic weapons.

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