- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 12, 2015

NASHVILLE — An invigorated National Rifle Association tested the mettle of potential 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls and ramped up for an expected battle against Hillary Rodham Clinton — though the gun rights group said it also will keep a watchful eye during President Obama’s final years in office.

And in speeches at the NRA’s annual convention this weekend, the candidates did their best to fire up the attendees.

“We are at war. This is not a time of peace,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told the crowd. “My goal is to make sure that we go after those bastards that are trying to kill us and everybody like us, and make sure they feel the wrath of this country — that we dig them out and we kill them, because there is no other substitute.”

Gun rights supporters will be able to pick from a host of Republican candidates, who all vowed to be vigilant against encroachment on the Second Amendment. They also were unified in decrying Mr. Obama’s performance, both domestically and in managing overseas conflicts.

“We need a president who will be straight up with the American people, and look them in the eye, and tell them, ‘It is not a matter of if, it is when they [make] another attempt on American soil, and, for the sake of my children and yours, I am not going to wait. I am going to take the fight to them before they bring the fight to us,’” Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker told the crowd Friday during the NRA-hosted leadership forum.

The candidates focused on Mr. Obama, but NRA officials made clear they’re already casting an eye beyond the current administration and see Mrs. Clinton as a continuation of Mr. Obama.

NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre set the tone early.

“Is the Obama-Clinton foreign policy that has led to the surrender of ground gained by our brave men and women in the military, that has led to the collapse of morale among the [military] ranks and has reached the point where they refused to even acknowledge who our enemies are or how victory can be defined — is that legacy of failure really the best America can do?” Mr. LaPierre said Friday, eliciting cries of “No!” from the crowd. “The Obama-Clinton policies demean our U.S. military and represent the very worst of leadership.”

Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas followed suit: “The Obama-Clinton foreign policy of leading from behind does not work,” he said.

NRA leaders talked about raising as much as $70 million to fight against Mrs. Clinton, whose husband, former President Bill Clinton, led the push in the 1990s for some of the stiffest gun control laws on the books.

Memories of those battles are energizing the NRA.

“When our next president is elected, we vow on this day, that name will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Mr. LaPierre said Saturday.

NRA member Joe Robinson of Michigan shared the sentiment.

“I am still trying to see what the Republican Party is bringing forward and offering up, and I know what I don’t want,” the 62-year-old said. “I don’t want to see another Clinton in the White House. I just don’t want to see it. One reason is that Bill is going to be there as well, and I don’t want Bill in the damn White House again.”

About 70,000 NRA members and Second Amendment supporters attended the gathering at the Music City Center convention center, which was held over several days. The sprawling exhibit floor featured the latest handguns, long guns and machine guns, as well as an assortment of knives, gun safes and leather concealed carry “Gun Tote’n Mamas” handbags.

Gun raffles, quick-draw demonstrations and virtual shooting games were among the offerings. One exhibit displayed a Kawasaki motorcycle with a .50-caliber gun mounted on it. A poster next to it featured the image of a woman lying next to a machine gun with the caption “When Size Matters.”

Attendees taking the measure of the candidates found a lot to like among those who spoke — and they picked at Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Republican who announced his presidential bid last week but didn’t address the NRA gathering.

Mary Nelson of California said foreign policy is a major concern, adding that she is turned off by Mr. Paul because of his “somewhat strong libertarian streak.”

“They frankly get a wee bit wacko about foreign policy,” said Ms. Nelson, 66. “They don’t want to have one.”

Jim Rackelin of Illinois said he is more interested in the likes of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio or Mr. Walker, in part because he doesn’t see eye to eye with Mr. Paul on global affairs.

“I like some of his domestic stuff, but as far as what I know about him on foreign policy, he is more of an isolationist, and I don’t think that is a good thing to be,” the 53-year-old Air Force veteran said. “We are a global economy. We are a global world, and to become an isolationist, we are going back to the Japan days — just trade among yourself. There is no way — you can’t do it anymore.”

Mr. Rubio, who is expected to formally enter the GOP nomination race Monday, said the issues of gun rights and national security “intersect.”

“Everyone in this room understands something that our president does not: Strong defenses on the national and personal level are a means of preventing violence, not of promoting it,” Mr. Rubio said. “Weakness, on the other hand, is the friend of danger, and weakness is the enemy of peace. President Obama has been a weak president.”

The tough talk and heavy focus on foreign policy marked a shift from a year ago, when Mr. Rubio and others used their speeches to emphasize the need to push back against the stigmatization of gun owners and the Obama administration’s attempts to curb gun rights in the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Recent polls show GOP voters are eager for elected leaders in Washington to take a more muscular approach to foreign affairs.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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