Tuesday, September 21, 2004


Democrats in West Virginia know that many of their state's voters guard their gun rights jealously, and that their fear in 2000 that Al Gore was out to take their weapons -- stoked by Republicans and the National Rifle Association -- helped seal the former vice president's defeat.

That's why Kerry stood on a stage here last week, proudly hoisting a shotgun and telling a throng of mine workers that he would like to go "gobble huntin' " with them as soon as possible.

The scene boosted Kerry's image with at least one voter attending Kerry's Labor Day rally. "It cleared one problem up for me, with the guns," said Paul Cooper, 62, of Madison, who wore his Navy garrison cap under the hot sun. "He can't be against our guns, or want to take mine, if he's got one of his own."

The potency of the gun issue also explains why party officials hope Kerry will find time to go bird hunting here before Nov. 2 and create another unmistakable snapshot West Virginians can take to the ballot box.....

Still, conquering the gun issue will be a stiff challenge for Kerry, who describes himself as a hunter since childhood. Even as he strives to avoid being seen as an antigun liberal, the candidate is trying to appeal to independent voters who predominantly favor gun control.

Last week in Washington, Kerry attacked President Bush for failing to push for an extension of the federal assault-weapons ban, a measure that gun rights groups have fiercely opposed. The Massachusetts Democrat had rarely mentioned his support for gun control laws until the ban was about to lapse, aware that many members of his own party who represent rural areas oppose such restrictions......

Kerry's approach mirrors a strategy presented last year by the gun control group Americans for Gun Safety in a paper about how Democrats could tap a so-called "gun swing" group -- voters who would otherwise back a Republican but would be willing to vote for a Democrat who stressed gun rights and gun safety, rather than staying silent on the issue or talking only about gun restrictions. Democratic pollsters Mark J. Penn and Peter Brodnitz found that up to 21 percent of voters they polled fit this description......

Still, Kerry's attempt to tack toward the middle on the gun issue has invited accusations from the Bush campaign that he is being disingenuous. Kerry is trying to "present an image to American voters that counters the facts, and the fact is that John Kerry has an F rating from the National Rifle Association," said Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman.

Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said last week that Kerry "is talking out of both sides of his mouth."

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