By David Lawder
NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland (Reuters) - U.S. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tried to bring some firepower to his tough re-election battle on Thursday, brandishing a rifle as he strode onstage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.
McConnell hoisted the flint-lock muzzle-loading rifle over his head at the gathering of conservative leaders and Republican Party activists and handed it to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a fellow Republican who has said he will retire when his term ends in January 2015.
"This is for you, for your distinguished service," said McConnell, 72, earning the biggest applause of his brief speech at CPAC.
For McConnell, who is the sixth-longest serving current U.S. senator, wielding the rifle amounted to a nod to gun-rights conservatives at a time when he has come under fire on two fronts as he seeks another term in the November 4 elections.
Although he is a vocal and persistent critic of Democratic President Barack Obama and Obama's healthcare overhaul in particular, McConnell has faced criticism from conservatives in his party for cutting fiscal deals with Democrats. He is being challenged in the May 20 Republican primary by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who is backed by the conservative Tea Party movement.
Recent Kentucky polls have indicated that McConnell is well ahead of Bevin. The polls also indicate McConnell is running virtually even with the Democratic nominee in the November election, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes.
McConnell's speech at CPAC focused on "red meat" conservative issues touted by other CPAC speakers, including jabs at the program known as Obamacare and the president's handling of the economy.
McConnell accused Obama and Democrats of being bent on increasing government power through Obamacare, stiffer environmental regulations and the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
"The President of the United States is treating our Constitution worse than a placemat at Denny's" he said, referring to the family restaurant chain.
Grimes, 35, responded to McConnell's brandishing of the rifle with a Twitter post that chided him over his handling of the weapon.
"Someone tell @Team_Mitch that's not the way to hold a gun. KY women do it better," she tweeted.
(Editing by David Lindsey, Diane Craft and Andrew Hay)