- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 18, 2005

The two major-party gubernatorial candidates in Virginia are targeting gun-rights advocates, including sportsmen — a crucial voting bloc that previously endorsed candidates, most of whom ended up winning the election.

Both Republican Jerry W. Kilgore and Democrat Timothy M. Kaine have formed sportsmen groups — “Sportsmen for Kilgore” and “Sportsmen for Kaine,” respectively — and promised that if elected, each will uphold gun rights more than his opponent.

Sportsmen and gun-rights advocates have always been crucial voters in Virginia, and this year is no exception, particularly since the National Rifle Association (NRA) declined to endorse a candidate in the 2001 race. The gubernatorial candidates who won NRA endorsements in 1993 and 1997 won their races.

This year, the NRA has endorsed Mr. Kilgore, a former state attorney general who received an “A” rating. The NRA gave Mr. Kaine, the lieutenant governor, an “F.”

Despite his rating, Mr. Kaine says he is an avid outdoorsman who will protect gun rights. Before announcing the formation of his sportsmen group last month, Mr. Kaine went skeet shooting, hitting 14 of 24 clay targets with a shotgun.

“I want the sportsman of Virginia to know that I am a friend,” Mr. Kaine said, announcing the group’s formation. He has said that if elected he would not propose any new anti-gun laws.

Mr. Kilgore, who announced his sportsmen group days later, dismissed Mr. Kaine’s group.

“Protecting the Second Amendment is not just some issue I stumbled upon in an election year,” Mr. Kilgore said. “If you have an ‘F,’ you can’t be trusted on the Second Amendment.”

Independent candidate H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester, is not campaigning for or against gun rights.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the state’s gun-rights lobby group, has criticized Mr. Kilgore for not participating in the group’s candidate questionnaire for the upcoming election or the June primary.

VCDL President Philip Van Cleave praised Mr. Kaine for completing his questionnaire. Mr. Van Cleave said Mr. Kilgore seems to be afraid of letting voters know his positions.

The NRA declined to endorse either Mark L. Earley, a Republican, and Mark Warner, a Democrat, in the 2001 governor’s race. Mr. Warner, viewed by many in rural Virginia as pro-gun and sportsmen rights, won the race.

The NRA said Mr. Earley failed to capture its endorsement because he did not want to repeal the state’s one-handgun-per-month restriction.

But, in late October 2001, the NRA urged voters to choose Mr. Earley, saying he was a better candidate with an “A-” rating than Mr. Warner, who had a “C.”

Mr. Kilgore wants to expand the number of handguns that permit holders can purchase each month, his campaign said.

Mr. Kaine supports the one-handgun-per-month rule.

Chuck Cunningham, the NRA’S director of federal affairs, who is also chairman of “Sportsmen for Kilgore,” said Mr. Kaine is a “camouflage candidate” who has a lot to hide.

Mr. Cunningham and the Kilgore campaign have criticized Mr. Kaine for chartering buses to take participants to the Million Mom March gun-control rally in the District in 2000. Mr. Kaine, who was mayor of Richmond at the time, has said he was showing sympathy for gun-crime victims.

Still, Delegate Albert C. Pollard Jr., Lancaster Democrat, who is co-chairman of “Sportsmen for Kaine,” said Mr. Kaine is an ally of sportsmen because he wants to protect the environment.

Mr. Pollard said Mr. Kilgore is not serious about sportsmen’s rights because last year he opposed a $1.38 billion tax increase, a part of which was set aside to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Van Cleave said Mr. Kaine is following the “Warner playbook” because he addresses the gun-rights issue and doesn’t “scream” for gun control.

“Mr. Kilgore is following the playbook of Mr. Earley, snubbing the grass roots,” he said. “Our members only got irritated, and when the election hit, people either stayed home or found they did have somewhere else to go.”

The NRA says that more than 115,000 state members vote solely on gun-rights issues.

But a recent telephone survey conducted by New Jersey-based Rasmussen Reports showed that gun rights ranked near the bottom among the issues most important to voters.

The poll showed that 54 percent of likely Virginia voters said laws concerning the sales of firearms should be more strict. Eleven percent said the laws should be less strict and 32 percent said there is no need for a change.

Delegate Brian J. Moran told WTOP Radio on Friday that Republicans are using guns as a red herring. “It’s a non-issue,” the Alexandria Democrat said.

Mr. Moran said the legislature “overwhelmingly” supports the Second Amendment and that measures restricting gun rights are not likely to pass.

Leslie L. Byrne, the Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor, made a similar comment this month. But her Republican challenger, William T. Bolling, said her comment “rings hollow from someone with an ‘F-‘ rating from the NRA.”

Democratic attorney general candidate R. Creigh Deeds, who has opposed gun-control measures, has always had an “A” rating from the NRA.

Mr. Deeds, a state senator from Bath County, sponsored a state constitutional amendment that guaranteed the right to hunt, fish and trap game. Voters approved the amendment in 2000.

Mr. Deeds said he knows he has the sportsmen’s vote. “You’ve got to play to your strengths.”

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