- The Washington Times - Friday, October 26, 2001

The National Rifle Association has decided not to endorse anyone in the Virginia governor's race but is strongly urging members to vote for Republican Mark L. Earley over Democrat Mark R. Warner.
"In our judgment, Mark Earley is clearly a better candidate for Virginia's NRA members, gun owners and sportsmen," James Baker, the NRA's chief lobbyist, wrote in a two-page letter that will begin arriving in members' mail today. The association graded Mr. Earley as an "A-" and Mr. Warner as a "C" on Second Amendment issues.
Even without an endorsement, the strong language of the letter is a plum for the Earley campaign. The NRA claims more than 115,000 state members, and by some estimates as many as 100,000 Virginians vote solely on gun rights issues.
"It's going to be very helpful because it clearly delineates the positions between the two candidates on the issue of the Second Amendment," said Christopher LaCivita, a senior adviser to the Earley campaign.
In the letter, Mr. Baker notes that Mr. Earley "has not always been everything gun owners would like in a candidate." In particular, Mr. Earley's lack of support for the NRA's desire to repeal the state's "one gun a month" restriction cost him the group's outright endorsement, NRA and campaign sources said.
Mr. Warner earned a C-, Mr. Baker said, despite the candidate's changing positions on gun rights since the early 1990s when he was "clearly hostile" to the NRA.
Not only does Mr. Warner oppose the association on the "gun a month" law, he also supports allowing localities to put restrictions on concealed carry permit holders, Mr. Baker said.
Mr. Warner also lost points with the NRA for his answer to a question during the Oct. 3 debate in Richmond. Asked whether the NRA was a positive or negative force in Virginia, Mr. Warner answered that the organization represented its members and other sportsmen well. Mr. Earley, by contrast, called the NRA "a very positive force" that defended a fundamental constitutional right.
Libertarian William Redpath, who also is on the Nov. 6 ballot, wasn't mentioned in the letter.
The NRA's decision is a blow to the Warner campaign, which has widely courted gun owners throughout the campaign. Even up through yesterday morning, his campaign thought the NRA was staying neutral in the race.
"Do I think it'll beat us? No, it's not going to beat us. Does it hurt? Sure it hurts, especially when you're an NRA member and you've been in Richmond for the 10 years of Mark Earley's Senate career and seen his votes," said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, who has been Mr. Warner's point man on the issue.
"They mention 'gun a month' in there but they don't mention he voted for the waiting period on semiautomatic rifles, which make up about one-third of deer hunting rifles in Virginia. They don't mention that he voted to fingerprint concealed weapons applicants. They didn't mention that he voted to make mom 'n' pop gun collectors register at gun shows," Mr. Saunders said. "The only way Mark Earley could get an A- is if he graded his own paper."
The Warner campaign can claim some victory, however, for having kept the NRA on the sidelines for so long.
The NRA's letter is the result of months of internal battles. Some within the association had pushed to stay out of the race altogether. They argued that Mr. Earley didn't deserve the help, and that Mr. Warner had at least earned a stalemate with his overtures to sportsmen.
But others, including apparently the top leadership, felt Mr. Earley deserved some support. That decision may have been influenced by pressure from key national and Virginia Republican leaders, who made it clear they expected the organization to back Mr. Earley.
The NRA has no explicit standards governing an endorsement, so the decision in this race was made knowing it would set a precedent for key races next year like Elizabeth Dole's potential run for North Carolina Republican Sen. Jesse Helms' seat.
There is some question how effective the NRA's letter will be, coming so late in the election. The letter has been under consideration for some time. It was supposed to be approved and sent on Monday but was delayed because Mr. Baker was traveling, a spokesman said earlier this week.
Some local NRA election liaisons those who help coordinate with candidates said the association has miffed many of its members by waiting so long to make a decision.
"I think that the letter has been prompted by the number of irate phone calls they have gotten. I've gotten phone calls here from folks that say 'What's going on, they're handing the election to Warner' because they won't endorse Earley," said one coordinator.
Still, coordinators said the rank-and-file members were ready to back Mr. Earley once the NRA gave its approval.

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