MONROEVILLE, Pa. -- The issue of guns, once seen as a potential winner for Democrats, is now threatening the party's prospects of keeping the White House and regaining control of Congress, according to strategists and officials with both major parties.
The problem for Democrats is that gun control is unpopular among many of the swing voters both campaigns are targeting in the final weeks of the campaign, particularly in battleground states -- like Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Pennsylvania -- with a sizable bloc of hunters and other gun enthusiasts.
As a result, Vice President Al Gore has moderated his anti-gun rhetoric in recent weeks, going out of his way in the last two presidential debates to emphasize that he would not take guns away from sportsmen. And many House and Senate Democrats have found that gun control is not resonating in many key contests as other issues, like prescription drugs.
The situation underscores the volatile politics of gun control this election. After the Columbine High School shootings a year and half ago, anti-gun advocates had political momentum, but politicians and pollsters say the National Rifle Association and others appear to have had some success with the argument that more enforcement, not new laws, is what's needed.
"Watch Al Gore on guns and you can see the issue has not had the universal appeal some people had anticipated," said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., who chairs the GOP's campaign arm and supports stricter gun laws. "It's not a national issue. It's a regional one."
Fueling the pro-gun forces has been a massive mobilization by the NRA under the banner of "Vote Freedom First," as the group has blanketed the airwaves and billboards in key states with the message that guns alone should be the deciding factor in this year's election.
In Pennsylvania, for example, which boasts the second-highest number of gun owners in the nation next to Texas, more than 1,000 National Rifle Association supporters jammed a hotel ballroom early Wednesday morning to attend a rally headlined by NRA president Charlton Heston.
The former movie star told audience members they were "the direct descendants of America's revolutionary heroes" by working to elect gun control opponents like Republicans George W. Bush, Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., and House candidate Melissa Hart.
"They won their freedom with bullets so that we could defend our freedom with ballots," Heston told the crowd. "That is the holy war which you in this room help wage and win. But instead of fighting the Redcoats, we're fighting the blue-blood elitists."
Several members of the audience said they were not only voting Republican this year, they were also volunteering on behalf of GOP candidates in order to make sure Congress does not take up gun control legislation next year. Last summer in the wake of Columbine, the House narrowly defeated a measure that would have imposed a three-day background check on firearms purchased at gun shows.
"I'm not a gun fanatic, I'm a constitutional fanatic," said Gibsonia resident Michael O'Block, who will be working the polls for Hart in her bid to succeed Rep. Ron Klink, D-Pa. Klink is challenging Santorum for his Senate seat.
The intensity of the NRA drive has thrown a wrench into AFL-CIO efforts to mobilize on behalf of Democratic candidates, especially in Michigan, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington. In Michigan, State Rep. Valde Garcia attended an NRA rally in the small town of DeWitt, and he estimated that at least half the men in the audience wore UAW (United Auto Workers) jackets. "This (gun control) is a real issue with these guys," he said.
Steve Rosenthal, political director of the AFL, said union members have been bringing their leaders leaflets from pro-gun groups telling members, "Defend your guns, defeat Al Gore." Labor leaders are now countering with a message delivered directly to members that "Al Gore doesn't want to take your gun away, but George Bush wants to take away your union."
Rosenthal contended that "the NRA stuff is so strong that it is not really credible." But key officials in the Gore campaign believe that it is a major reason for the erosion of Gore support in such states as Pennsylvania and Michigan.
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, said Gore's decision to de-emphasize gun control may be based on poll trends that show a reduction in the overall support for gun control, especially among men.
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