"In Montana, we like our guns. We like big guns. We like little guns. We like shotguns. We like pistols. Most of us own two or three guns. Gun control is hitting what you shoot at," the state's Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer told the New York Times in April. When asked why he thought the Democratic nominee would not win his state, he replied, "guns."
After Al Gore narrowly lost the 2000 election, President Clinton said his support for gun control was partly to blame for his defeat. Then-Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe urged his party to abandon gun control issues in future campaigns. "I believe we ought to move it out, let the individual communities decide their gun laws and how guns ought to be treated," he said at the time.
Democrats had hoped to put the issue behind them, with 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry going so far as to stage a campaign stop in Ohio to go goose hunting - and suffering at the hands of pundits who mocked him for pandering.
This year, Mr. Obama's voting record, coupled with that of running mate Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, has resurrected the gun issue, and John McCain's campaign sees it as a major wedge issue to win over gun-owning swing Democrats and working-class union members in key Democratic bastions.
"Absolutely, we're going to emphasize guns and the Second Amendment. They're fundamental issues for Democrats, independents and Republicans in the battleground states that will decide this election," said McCain spokesman Brian Rogers.
Mr. McCain has compiled a largely pro-gun voting record in the Senate, but he has had some differences with the National Rifle Association on his support for background checks at gun shows and his campaign finance reform law, which restricts certain campaign TV ads among advocacy groups such as the NRA. More recently, though, his selection of running-mate Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a hunter and NRA member, has boosted his standing.
"We've had some disagreements, and everyone knows what they are. We have agreed to disagree," NRA Chief Executive Officer Wayne LaPierre said. "But we'd be foolish to ignore the vast numbers of areas where John McCain has been a friend to gun owners and sportsmen."
cMcCain: Voted against a ban on assault-type weapons but is in favor of requiring background checks at gun shows. Voted to shield gun makers and dealers from civil suits. "I believe the Second Amendment ought to be preserved - which means no gun control."
cObama: Voted to leave gun makers and dealers open to suit. Also, as an Illinois state lawmaker, supported a ban on all forms of semiautomatic weapons and tighter state restrictions generally on firearms.
The McCain campaign has been telling voters in Montana and elsewhere about the pro-gun-control voting record compiled by Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden. The result was a Rasmussen state poll in Montana this week that showed Mr. Obama trailing his Republican rival by 53 percent to 42 percent.
Democratic strategist Simon Rosenberg, who heads the New Democrat Network, released a new set of polls Wednesday that showed Montana was among several Democratic target states that "seems to be drifting back into the GOP camp."
Supreme court ruling
Gun control issues returned to the spotlight with the Supreme Court's June 26 ruling striking down the District's handgun ban.
Mr. McCain hailed the decision as "a landmark victory for Second Amendment freedom." Mr. Obama straddled the issue, saying he favored an individual's right to keep and bear firearms but also the government's right to regulate them: "I also identify with the need for crime-ravaged communities to save their children from the violence that plagues our streets through common-sense, effective safety measures," he said.
As a state senator in Illinois, he voted for a broad range of gun control measures and supported the District's and Chicago's gun bans. The NRA has given his voting record an F grade.
Mr. Obama has countered this week by running radio ads narrated by Ray Schoenke, president of the American Hunters and Shooters Association, which backs his candidacy, saying the Democratic nominee does not oppose gun ownership. Mr. Schoenke is a former Democratic candidate for Maryland governor, and Republicans say his group is a front for Democrats.
Republican National Committee spokesman Alex Conant said Monday that Mr. Obama "is the most "anti-gun presidential candidate in American history. Now he is using a Democratic front group to try to fool people about his anti-gun record."
The NRA boasts slightly fewer than 4 million members, but that number significantly understates its ability to mobilize tens of millions of other gun owners, hunters and sportsmen in presidential campaigns in large swaths of the nation's rural country in the Midwest, South and West and the rural Northeast that has helped Republicans win seven out of the past 10 presidential elections.
In 2000, for example, the NRA mounted a massive direct-mail and TV/radio campaign against Mr. Gore's candidacy and his gun control voting record. Voter exit polls in that election showed that about 48 percent of all voters owned guns that year, up from 37 percent in 1996.
NRA officials say the gun issue has traction across the country, especially among union households that are heavily Democratic. "Polls show that gun ownership in union households runs from a low of 48 percent in California to 90 percent in states like West Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Nevada and places like that," Mr. LaPierre said.
NRA Executive Director Chris Cox said his organization will spend "whatever our members send us" and mount a major national campaign against the Obama-Biden ticket that will include field staff in 15 battleground states, the registration of new gun owners to vote, and a massive outreach effort.
"We will over the next 10 days have contacted over a million registered gun owners, and we're launching our Obama gun ban Web site that will allow our supporters to see ads we are running all over the country," Mr. Cox said Monday.
Mr. Schweitzer's warning about his state could well apply to a number of other battleground states.
In heavily Democratic Michigan, for example, where Mr. Obama is in a virtual tie with Mr. McCain, guns remain a touchy subject with many voters, especially blue-collar union members on whom the Obama campaign is counting to deliver the state.
Michigan pollster Bernie Porn, president of EPIC/MRA, said that with the state's economy in a shambles, gun control isn't on the list of issues that voters cite as main concerns. Nevertheless, he notes that "the state has one of the highest gun ownership rates in the country" and that in a downbeat economy where Mr. Obama should be doing well, "he is underperforming among union members and other folks with hunting backgrounds."
The McCain campaign has been sending out e-mails and other mailings charging that both Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden have been "consistently anti-gun" and have supported numerous gun control bills throughout their careers. Neither Democrat signed a "friend of the court" brief supporting the case that led the Supreme Court in June to strike down the District's gun ban - though 77 Democrats did.
In one e-mail, the McCain campaign charges that Mr. Obama has been a supporter of gun bans in the past and is "poised to roll back Second Amendment rights" if he becomes president.
Mr. Obama strongly denied during a campaign appearance in Lebanon, Va., on Wednesday that he intends to take away anyone's shotguns, rifles or handguns, but the NRA put out a fact sheet on his legislative record immediately after his remarks, saying that "Obama's words on the campaign trail do not match his long record of opposing lawful gun ownership."
"He has supported bans on handguns and semi-automatic assault firearms, and he has voted to ban possession of many shotguns and rifles commonly used by hunters and sportsmen across America. And we will remind voters every single time he lies."