Salena Zito

Last October, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, a popular Mountaineer State Democrat, was fast becoming an unpopular candidate for the late Robert Byrd's open U.S. Senate seat.

So Manchin did what many red-blooded Americans would do when backed against a wall: He pulled out a gun - literally - in a TV ad responding to his plunging polls and the stinging criticism that he would be President Obama's rubber-stamp in Washington.

Dressed in a khaki jacket and Levi jeans, with a banjo plunking in the background, Manchin said he would take aim at the cap-and-trade bill in the Senate. Then he fired a shot through a copy of the legislation, to make his point.

"It was the best ad in the entire cycle," said National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre.

The NRA endorsed Manchin. He stopped dropping in the polls. And, using the ad's theme of keeping the federal government off voters' backs, he won the election.

He was the rare Democrat in 2010's midterm cycle who understood the message needed to win - protecting freedom and distrusting too much government.

It's no accident that the NRA is holding its national convention in Pittsburgh. "Most of our membership is within driving distance," LaPierre explained.

Those members from driving-distance states (New York, Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey) voted en masse for Republican House candidates last year.

Yet a certain mythology surrounds NRA members. They are not necessarily dyed-in-the-wool Republicans; many are fickle, centrist independents or rural Democrats who don't always vote single issues, such as gun rights, but always fiercely protect all freedoms - which made Republicans so appealing in last year's midterms.

LaPierre said a lot his members also belong to labor unions.

The NRA brilliantly frames the gun-rights issue as one of protecting personal freedom and constitutional rights, according to George Mason University political science professor Mark Rozell.

"Consider the message of the 'vote freedom first' slogan: You may be a working-class union member who identifies with the Democrats, but your freedoms and rights come first," Rozell said.

It has moved a lot of Democrat-leaning voters, and even elected Democrats, to break with their national party on gun control, especially in the South and Midwest.

Former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean said those same rural voters - whether Democrats, Republicans or independents - have a general mistrust of government in their DNA.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.