The 2008 GOP presidential primary is shaping up to be the most competitive nominating process the party has seen in decades. It is also the most frontloaded.
Candidates are fighting it out in the constantly expanding pool of "early primary" states and hoping to make it to Super Tuesday. With nearly two dozen states up for grabs on that first Tuesday in February, the eventual nominee can close the deal with GOP voters then and there.
To get there, however, a candidate will need to lock down a key constituency.
In each of the last four even year general elections, gun owners have had a massive impact. And the National Rifle Association (NRA) has proven to everyone that if you want to win the presidency, earning the support of gun owners and Second Amendment defenders might be the deciding factor.
So it's not surprising Republican presidential candidates rushed to appear at the first-ever NRA voters' convention to talk to some 500 NRA members and the organization's leadership. Though always important for a Republican seeking the nomination, securing the gun vote in 2008 will be essential.
At the meeting, Rudy Giuliani engaged gun owners in a search for common ground. Mr. Guiliani's actions going after criminals in New York City were often seen as also being unfriendly to gun owners. But at the convention, he moved to start a dialogue and showcase areas of agreement with NRA members.
In his remarks, he endorsed the fact that the Second Amendment protects the right of private citizens to own guns. Mr. Giuliani told the audience that while they may not agree on everything, they do agree on more than they think. He extended an olive branch.
Another contender, Fred Thompson, was more at home with the NRA members and gave a solid performance. This Southerner showed why he consistently received an "A" rating from the NRA when he held elective office. The best one-liner of the meeting went to Mr. Thompson, joking that he thought his wife Jeri would be a better first lady than Bill Clinton. This was his kind of crowd.
John McCain praised gun owners, embraced the Second Amendment, and pledged to fight gun control efforts. Acknowledging past disagreements, he committed to working together with the group.