WASHINGTON -- Gun control has suddenly emerged as the toxic issue of the 2008 presidential campaign, endangering Barack Obama's appeal among Democratic blue-collar and labor-union households.
The freshman senator from Illinois has a long record of favoring gun bans in Chicago and Washington, D.C., and a raft of other gun-control bills that are anathema to gun owners, hunters and sportsmen alike.
He insists now that he supports Second Amendment gun rights to keep and bear arms that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld when it struck down the D.C. gun ban in June. But he refused to join 77 of his colleagues who signed a friend of the court brief to end the weapons ban, and he remains sympathetic to a broad range of gun-ban statutes.
Still, the Obama campaign has been running ads in key states with large populations of gun owners and hunters, insisting he supports the right. He cannot run away from his record, while the McCain campaign, the Republican National Committee and the nearly 4-million-member National Rifle Association are blanketing the country with ads, Web site videos and other broadsides detailing his record -- especially in battleground states where gun controls are political poison.
NRA officials told me this week that they are mounting the biggest anti-gun-control offensive in their history to make sure every gun owner in the country knows that, deep down inside, he does not believe people should own guns.
"We are going to spend whatever our members send us," NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox told me in a phone interview. "Obama assumes our members are either stupid or have short memories, or both. What he's going to find out is not only are they a loyal voting bloc but a savvy voting bloc who don't become bitter by owning guns but become bitter when politicians lie to them or mock their lifestyle."
The gun-rights voting bloc is a sizable force in American politics, with 90 million gun owners in the country that the NRA has become proficient in mobilizing in presidential elections. Their largest numbers are found in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and out west, in places like Montana, Nevada and Colorado -- red battleground states that Obama Democrats hope to carry this time.
President Clinton believes to this day that Al Gore's pro-gun-control record cost him three to six states and the 2000 election. Voter exit polls at that time found that about 48 percent of voters owned guns, up from 37 percent in 1996. George Bush won 61 percent of their vote.