Salena Zito

Dean received eight consecutive NRA endorsements when he was in office. "It's not so much a Democrat-versus-Republican thing ... as a rural versus urban thing," he said. "I received the endorsement because I believed and supported the fundamental right to own a gun."

Veteran Democratic media consultant John Lapp said some candidates use NRA endorsements naturally, while others are just plain awkward: "The ones who are successful are the ones who are part of the culture. Voters understand the difference between authenticity and a scene prop."

This NRA convention is in the backyard of U.S. Sen. Bob Casey Jr., just as his first re-election campaign ramps up for 2012. Democrat Casey won on the backs of Pennsylvania's conservative, rural Democrats in 2006; he didn't have the NRA's endorsement, although its members gave him an "A" rating.

Casey said he has a lifelong respect for the traditions of gun ownership in Pennsylvania and the underlying protection of all freedoms that go with it, although he has never owned a gun.

"Fishing was our family's tradition," he said. "Although I did go skeet shooting once, I will be the first to admit I wasn't very good at it."

The bigger problem for Democrats among 2nd Amendment voters is the Obama administration's elitist approach to almost every issue. Ever since Pennsylvania Democrats' primary race between then-incumbent U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter and challenger Joe Sestak, then a congressman from Delaware County, Obama has had an obvious disconnect with people who work with their hands and, as he put it, cling to guns and religion.

That disconnect at the top has a powerful branding effect down the ticket in any election. Plenty of pro-gun Democrat candidates can survive Obama's elitism - but they have to take great care to make sure voters know how they're different.

That may be why former Virginia governor Tim Kaine appeared to borrow from Manchin's locked-and-loaded outfit for a video announcing Kaine's run for a U.S. Senate seat.


Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.