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Dems abandon gun issue in 2002 races
By Allison Stevens

Mindful that Vice President Al Gore lost the states of West Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee in 2000 partly because of his support for gun control, Democrats are backing away from the politically sensitive issue as they head into this year’s midterm elections.

Democratic staffers, consultants and candidates agree that calling for gun control in all but a few isolated races could jeopardize their efforts to take back control of the House and retain their narrow majority in the Senate in November.

Pollsters say the issue has receded in the public consciousness partly because tragedies like high school shootings in Columbine, Colo., and suburban Michigan and events like the Million Mom March have been overshadowed by the more recent war on terrorism and the sagging economy.

Having failed to pass gun control legislation in recent years, many Democrats in Southern and rural states are also looking to a new brand of liberalism personified by Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (D), a fiscal conservative who successfully melded progressive social values with a pro-gun rights stance.

Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said he has urged his clients to de-emphasize the issue of gun control in this year’s midterm elections because surveys conducted after the 2000 elections revealed that gun control positions hurt Democratic candidates from the top of the ticket down in rural and small towns and among white, non-college-educated voters.

More recent data show that this year’s crop of swing voters tend to have a more favorable opinion of the National Rifle Association (NRA) than does the electorate at large, according to a Democracy Corps poll conducted last week.

“I think people felt burned by 2000 on the gun issue,” Greenberg said. “I don’t see any pressure to get the gun issue on the national agenda. … I don’t even see a discussion of it. It’s not even that they’re debating it and deciding against it. I think it’s just taken for granted that it’s not going to be emphasized.”

Democratic strategist James Carville echoed the sentiment. “I don’t think there’s a Second Amendment right to own a gun,” he said. “But I think it’s a loser political issue. … I think the issue has not been good for us. On top of that, I like guns.”

NRA chief lobbyist Chris Cox said Democrats are backtracking on the gun issue more than ever this year and are increasingly courting the gun lobby.

“The Democratic leadership has recognized that supporting a gun control agenda is not politically feasible,” he said. “Electoral college losses in West Virginia, Tennessee and Arkansas and the subsequent analysis by political commentators and even Bill Clinton point to the significance of Second Amendment issues throughout the country.”

But Amy Stilwell, a spokeswoman for the Brady Campaign — formerly known as Handgun Control Inc. — dismissed the notion that the gun control issue was responsible for Gore’s defeat in the drawn-out 2000 presidential election and said a shift in strategy would be foolish.

“Anybody who’s thinking of backing off really shouldn’t,” she said. “They should take a look at 2000, where, despite recent reports, the gun issue has done very well.”

She noted that despite being outspent by a ratio of five to one, the gun control movement had a far more successful year in 2000 than did the gun lobby.

The NRA, she said, lost five of seven targeted races in Minnesota, Michigan, Missouri, Washington state and Florida. The group also lost seven of its top nine House candidates.

The Brady Campaign, however, succeeded in defeating nine of 12 targeted candidates and shepherded to victory ballot initiatives to overturn the gun show loophole in Oregon and Colorado.

Bob Spitzer, a professor of political science at the State University of New York and author of a book called The Politics of Gun Control, agreed.

“I don’t quite see why they are so leery about the issue,” he said, noting that in addition to losing a number of Senate and House races, the NRA failed to deliver large pro-gun states such as Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa and New Mexico.

Nonetheless, Democrats insist they will downplay the gun issue this year.
The Democratic Party “is definitely backing away from guns,” one Democratic insider said on the condition of anonymity. “Frankly, it costs us far more than it gets us. The people who vote for us vote for us without it.”

Robert Gibbs, spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said the retreat of the gun issue has a lot to do with the individual candidates’ profiles and the geography of the battleground.

Indeed, this year’s most competitive Senate races are taking place in rural states such as South Dakota, Colorado, Arkansas and New Hampshire where residents virtually worship the Second Amendment and hunters jealously guard their right to own guns. There are only a few contested Senate races taking place in states with major metropolitan areas — where gun control plays well — but those races are in Southern, pro-gun states like Texas and Georgia.

Similarly, the battle for control of the House will be played out in a large number of rural districts in states like Maine, Arizona, South Dakota, Tennessee, West Virginia and others, where even the scent of gun control can send candidates to defeat.

“Nothing has come down from on high,” Gibbs said. “The best advice that we would give anybody is, ‘You know your own state better than any of us do.’ We have a lot of candidates who, as hunters and sportsmen, are comfortable talking about how hunting and fishing have played an important role” in their lives.

Comment: Not to worry, they'll be back with the issue when the time is right. Right now they will settle for buffaloing the rural voter that they are really Pro-gun.
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