The New York Times       April 16, 2004
THE GUN GROUP    By JAMES DAO
N.R.A. Opens an All-Out Drive for Bush and Its Views

PITTSBURGH, April 15 — When the National Rifle Association opens its annual meeting here on Friday, it will do more than celebrate hunting, weaponry and the Second Amendment.  It will also kick off a vigorous campaign to whip up support among its nearly four million members for President Bush's re-election.

Before tens of thousands of gun owners at the Pittsburgh Convention Center, the association's leadership plans to label Mr. Bush's likely Democratic opponent, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, as a liberal threat to gun ownership.  It is a message they will repeat again and again until Election Day, using the Internet, mailings, television advertising and their formidable nationwide network of gun clubs.

"What you see in John Kerry," Wayne LaPierre, the association's executive vice president said in an interview this week, "is a politician that spent his life voting against the Second Amendment.  What I see is the same thing I saw in Michael Dukakis and Al Gore.  It's an elitist arrogance.

It is no accident, N.R.A. officials said, that this year's convention is being held in Pittsburgh.  Two-thirds of the attendees are expected to come from within a 100-mile radius that spans three battleground states: Pennsylvania, which voted for Mr. Gore in 2000, and Ohio and West Virginia, which voted for Mr. Bush.

"These are states where the N.R.A. can make a difference," said G. Terry Madonna, director of the Keystone Poll at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

At the convention, the association also plans to unveil plans for an N.R.A. news company that would produce programs for the Internet, radio and possibly television, Mr. LaPierre said.  A daily Internet news talk show featuring a conservative host will begin broadcasting online on Friday.  The association hopes to announce acquisition of a radio station within two months, he said.

Creating a private news company would allow the association to disseminate its gun-rights views without having to follow new federal campaign finance restrictions, which prohibit the use of unlimited "soft money" close to a presidential or Congressional election, Mr. LaPierre said.  The association and other groups challenged those restrictions, but lost.

"We have every bit as much a right to provide news and information to the American public as Disney has through ABC, Time-Warner has through CNN and News Corporation does through Fox," Mr. LaPierre said.  "If you own the outlet, you can say whatever you want.  This an act of defiance, but it is completely in keeping with the law."

The boost from the rifle association also comes at an opportune time for Mr. Bush, who is facing unexpectedly sharp criticism from some gun rights activists for his position on a federal ban of assault weapons.

The president has said he would sign legislation renewing the 1994 law that bans 19 types of semiautomatic weapons.  That almost certainly will not happen this year because of opposition to the legislation in the Republican-controlled House.  Many conservatives consider the bill a deep infringement of their rights under the Second Amendment, which they contend gives individual Americans the right to own firearms.

"Gun owners who know the issues know that Bush is all talk," said Angel Shamaya, executive director of KeepAndBearArms.com, which is encouraging gun owners to vote for anyone but Mr. Bush.  "He's turned out to be a phony in so many ways, I'm embarrassed I voted for him in 2000."  <<NYT-editorial inside 'news'>>

The Bush campaign has begun trying to mend fences with gun groups by meeting with members and appointing liaisons to the groups in almost every state.  A 27,000 member Sportsmen for Bush group has reactivated.  And the president met with leaders of the N.R.A. and an array of hunting and fishing groups at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., last week. 

But the White House's biggest move has been to dispatch Vice President Dick Cheney, a popular figure among gun owners, to the convention, where he will deliver the keynote speech on Saturday night.

"There is a clear choice in this election between President Bush, who is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment and bill of rights, and Senator Kerry, who has a record of weakening those rights," said Scott Stanzel, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign.  On Monday, the president is scheduled to be at the Pittsburgh convention center for a campaign event for Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania.  Though the White House said Mr. Bush did not have plans to stop by an N.R.A. board meeting that will be going on next door, officials of the association say they hope he will, to send a strong message of support to gun owners.

Grover Norquist, an influential conservative strategist and association board member who is close to the White House, called the president's position on the assault weapon ban "a hiccup," but nevertheless a potential problem. "The president has been so good both in the campaign and in governing," Mr. Norquist said. "This is the one high profile part of the center-right coalition's agenda that they got wrong."

For its part, the rifle association will try to paint Mr. Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran who says he has been a lifelong hunter, as a Kennedy-style liberal who supports strong gun restrictions — a "gun grabber," in the group's lingo.  <<NYT-editorial inside 'news'>>

Though the association's political action committee has yet to make an endorsement in the presidential race, its support for Mr. Bush is a foregone conclusion.  The association backed him in 2000.

One of the first things convention attendees will receive in Pittsburgh is the latest issue of the association's monthly magazine, which features a cover photograph of Mr. Kerry posing triumphantly with Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Charles E. Schumer and Diane Feinstein after they helped defeat legislation intended to protect the gun industry from lawsuits.  The association had made the bill one of its top priorities this year.  << ? frivolous lawsuits ? -NYT-editorial inside 'news >>

"You talk about the four horsemen of apocalypse — that's the picture," Mr. LaPierre said.

The rifle association has also created a Web site devoted to attacking the federal ban on assault weapons, Clintongunban.com.  The name of the site underscores the association's central strategy: to link Mr. Kerry to former President Bill Clinton, who remains widely reviled by conservative gun owners.

Mr. LaPierre declined to say how much the group plans to spend on campaigns this year.  The association has been plagued by operating deficits, but its political action committee still has more than $4 million on hand, according to recent federal reports.  In 2000, it spent $16.8 million on federal campaigns.  <<NYT-editorial inside 'news>>

Clearly, the Bush administration values the rifle association's help.

At last year's N.R.A. convention in Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush, the president's brother, told members, "If it were not for your active involvement, it is safe to say that my brother would not have been elected president."

Aides to Mr. Kerry contend the association's influence has been grossly exaggerated.  Most gun owners are more concerned about the economy and Iraq this year than gun control, the aides contend.  <<NYT-editorial inside 'news>> 

But they acknowledge that the N.R.A. was effective in defining Mr. Gore as a threat to gun owners' rights in 2000, and vowed that Mr. Kerry will be quicker to counter such assertions.

The Democrats expect to recruit labor unions to disseminate Mr. Kerry's positions on guns, and to have Mr. Kerry meet with sportsmen's groups and perhaps go hunting.  Chad Clanton, a spokesman for the Kerry campaign, said Mr. Kerry intended to present himself as "a lifelong hunter and gun owner" who believes in protecting the Second Amendment but also supports "common sense" laws restricting military-style assault weapons and requiring gun-safety locks.
<<NYT-editorial inside 'news>>

     << Perhaps this should have appeared on the Editorioal Page,
               rather then under National News - - -   aj/D >>