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.
The high point of the convention went to Mike Huckabee. First, he gave a speech that wowed the crowd. Afterward, on news and public affairs shows, he was just as impressive. His unbending support of the Second Amendment on "Hardball with Chris Matthews" was textbook perfect. He supported gun rights and knocked down arguments from the left that we have to ban guns to stop crime. Mr. Huckabee pushed back against Chris Matthews' anti-gun arguments, and did it with a pleasant and easygoing style. Tapes of that interview should be distributed to teach public officials how to answer questions about Second Amendment rights.
It is a real testament to the NRA's success that almost every major Republican candidate for president engaged the NRA, with Mitt Romney the only one not attending (he sent a taped message).
And the way the primary calendar has changed, the gun vote just became more crucial than ever.
What do Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Michigan, Nevada, and Florida have in common? They all have their primaries, or caucuses, in January, before Super Tuesday.
What else do they have in common? They are all strong gun and Second Amendment freedom states.
In a state like South Carolina, opposition from gun owners is the kiss of death in a statewide race.
And some swing states are such because of large urban populations that vote Democrat. Their Republican primaries do not include many of those urban voters; the gun vote is huge.
That is the case with Michigan. Outside of Detroit, Michigan is a solidly red state, dominated by Second Amendment supporters with NRA stickers on their windows.
With these states moving forward and potentially deciding the nomination even before Super Tuesday, we might know who the nominees for both parties are by late January.
The NRA is in a stronger position than ever to influence the 2008 elections.
In fact, the NRA factor could be decisive. This is especially true given who the GOP will be up against next year.
All the Republican candidates are aware that Hillary Clinton is the most anti-gun candidate ever. Yes, she's to the left of Walter Mondale and George McGovern on guns. She cannot do what Al Gore or John Kerry did, trying to suddenly appear to be hunters and outdoorsmen. Mr. Kerry's staged goose hunt gave rise to former NRA president Sandy Froman's comment that, "John Kerry is the only man in America who wears blaze orange as camouflage." Mrs. Clinton cannot even pretend to be anything other than a hardcore foe of gun ownership, setting the stage for a massive battle with the NRA in 2008.
The NRA now says it might consider getting involved with the primaries. Every candidate — in fact, every voter — should pay attention to that. They mean business.