Mitt Romney spoke to thousands of gun owners Friday, but the former Massachusetts governor’s remarks were clearly aimed at a broader audience and offered an early glimpse at how the Republican presidential front-runner plans to take on President Obama.
Mr. Romney, who has a mixed record on Second Amendment issues, briefly mentioned gun rights in his speech at the annual meeting in St. Louis, focusing instead on what he called the Obama administration’s assault on economic, religious and personal freedom.
“In a second term, [Mr. Obama] would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election. As he told the Russian president last month when he thought no one else was listening, after his re-election he’ll have a lot more, quote, ‘flexibility’ to do what he wants. I’m not exactly sure what he meant by that, but looking at his first three years, I have a very good idea,” Mr. Romney said.
He accused Mr. Obama of trying to “browbeat” the Supreme Court during his first term in office and predicted he’ll try to “remake it” if he’s granted a second.
“Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama court — not just for 4 years, but for another 40,” Mr. Romney cautioned. “We must not let that happen.”
His remarks came three days after former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania ended his presidential bid, removing the last major hurdle standing between Mr. Romney and the party’s nomination.
One senior Romney adviser, speaking to CNN before Mr. Romney spoke, called the speech the “beginning” of the fall campaign.
It also gave the former governor a chance to shore up support among skeptical gun owners.
“If we are going to safeguard our Second Amendment, it is time to elect a president who will defend the rights President Obama ignores or minimizes,” he said. “I will.”
The speech seemed to resonate with the audience, which also heard from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Mr. Santorum, who also sounded the alarm on the filling of future court openings.
“If this president is re-elected, that 5-4 court may be 5-4 the other way and the things we take for granted in America would not be taken for granted,” Mr. Santorum said.
The Obama team shrugged off Mr. Romney’s attacks.
“The president’s record makes clear he supports and respects the Second Amendment, and we’ll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters,” said Ben LaBolt, campaign spokesman. “Mitt Romney is going to have difficulty explaining why he quadrupled fees on gun owners in Massachusetts then lied about being a lifelong hunter in an act of shameless pandering. That varmint won’t hunt.”
Chris Cox, executive director of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action, kicked off the annual meeting by bashing what he sees as the media’s negative portrayal of gun owners. He also trained fire at Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. for the failed Fast and Furious gunrunning operation in Arizona.
“President Obama needs to fire Eric Holder and in November we need to fire the president,” Mr. Cox said.
Emphasizing the importance of the election, he also reminded the crowd that the decisions they celebrated in the two recent landmark Supreme Court cases — District of Columbia v. Heller and McDonald v. Chicago — were decided by a single vote and could have easily swung in a different direction.
With three of the justices fast approaching 80 years old, he said there is a good chance the next president will have the opportunity to nominate candidates for the high court.
“If those three left, he could stack the court with a 6-to-3 majority rule for the next 30 years or more,” Mr. Cox said, warning that if that happens the Second Amendment could go from being a God-given right to a government-given privilege.