WOODBRIDGE, Va. -- Mark Warner brought a Harvard law degree, a successful career as a venture capitalist, and a no-new-taxes pledge to the race for Virginia governor. But one key to his election in this conservative, Republican-leaning state was the "A" rating he got from the National Rifle Association.
"I liked the way he came across. He seemed like a common-sense politician," said Phil Strader, 32, a shooting enthusiast and Woodbridge gun store owner who backed Warner because he opposed new gun laws and made his support for the Second Amendment crystal clear. "As a voter, the first thing I want to know is, `Where do you stand on gun control?' "
Strader, a competitive marksman and firearms instructor for the US Capitol Police, is the type of voter Democratic presidential candidates are targeting with a new strategy: Neutralize the divisive gun issue by embracing the constitutional right to bear arms, speak of gun safety instead of gun control, and pledge to enforce the gun laws on the books.
"Silence on the gun issue is not golden. It's deadly," said Deborah Barron, a spokeswoman for Americans for Gun Safety, an interest group working closely with the centrist Democratic Leadership Council to steer candidates away from polarizing rhetoric on guns and be more sensitive to the values and culture of gun owners, hunters, and hobbyists.
"If Democrats want to win a national majority, they have to take back the Second Amendment and support vigorous enforcement of existing gun laws," said Barron, who estimates 47 percent of US voting households own one or more guns.
In an October poll conducted for Americans for Gun Safety, 63 percent of gun owners said they believe Democratic officeholders want to ban all guns, and 59 percent said Democrats do not respect the rights or values of gun owners.
The conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party is that the gun issue cost them control of the House in 1994 and badly hurt Al Gore in 2000. Gore, who as a candidate proposed licensing gun owners, lost Arkansas, West Virginia, and his home state of Tennessee after aggressive NRA campaigns that portrayed him as dangerous to gun rights.
Denielle Strader, an NRA-certified firearms instructor who sometimes works with her husband at the Shooters Paradise store and gun range, shudders at the mention of Gore's name. "Scary," she said. Phil Strader said Gore was a "raging antigun Democrat." George W. Bush, who promised in his presidential campaign to strengthen enforcement of existing gun laws but not enact new ones, "stayed safely in the middle," Strader said.
The war in Iraq, national security, and the economy have pushed gun control from the spotlight. But a violent spree like the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, a terrorist attack using guns, or a high-volume debate in Congress over renewing the 1994 federal ban on 19 assault weapons next year could put guns in the campaign crosshairs.
In 1992, Howard Dean, then Vermont's governor, said in a National Rifle Association questionnaire that he opposed restricting ownership of assault weapons. As a presidential candidate, Dean now says he supports the current ban and would renew it, though he would not enact new federal laws, choosing to leave gun control up to individual states.
John F. Kerry, who voted for the original assault-weapons ban in the Senate, has accused Dean of being soft on gun safety and pandering to the NRA. As governor of a rural state, Dean defended the rights of gun owners and hunters and was was endorsed by the gun lobby.
"I don't want to be the candidate of the NRA, I don't want our party to be the party of the NRA," Kerry said after donning hunting gear and bagging two pheasants with a 12-gauge shotgun in front of a group of reporters and photographers in Iowa in October. "We can stand up for safety in America and keep guns out of the hands of children and felons and still respect the Second Amendment of our nation."
During a candidate debate in South Carolina in May, Joseph Lieberman disavowed licensing of gun owners, called it unconstitutional, and said he never supported it as Gore's running mate in 2000. Lieberman is sponsoring legislation to extend the 1993 Brady Law to require background checks on buyers who purchase guns from unlicensed dealers at gun shows.
But the 2004 Democratic candidates' model could be Mark Warner, who had a strategy to win the votes of rural and blue-collar Virginians by promising to protect their gun rights. He hunted turkeys, formed a "Sportsmen for Mark Warner" committee, and met with NRA officials at their northern Virginia headquarters to persuade them to stay neutral, which they did until the last two weeks of the race. Warner won, becoming Virginia's first Democratic governor since 1989.
Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the NRA, said Warner's position on guns not only helped him but started a "sea change" within the Democratic Party.
"Basically the gun issue has kicked Democrats' butts for over a decade, and they don't want to go down that one-way street again," LaPierre said. "There is no enthusiasm for future restrictive gun control in this presidential election. The Democratic Party would like to bury this issue and walk away from it."
The NRA, which spent $20 million in the 2000 elections, is expected to endorse Bush. The president has kept his promise not to enact new gun controls, and he supports legislation passed by the House in April that would give firearms manufacturers immunity from most civil lawsuits, an item high on the NRA's agenda.
Through his spokesman, Bush said he would sign a bill renewing the assault weapons ban, but the NRA opposes it, and gun-control groups do not expect Bush to "lift a finger" to move it through Congress next year, said Blaine Rummel, a spokesperson for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Polls show that a majority of Americans support the ban, but it is not popular with gun dealers like Strader, who say it's a toothless law because manufacturers have made cosmetic changes to skirt it and many of the banned semiautomatic weapons that were made before 1994 remain in circulation.
Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, though, believes Democrats can win over younger and suburban voters with a message that strong gun laws enhance national security. "Democrats ought to stand and fight, not run to the right," Lake said. Indeed, polls show strong support among Democratic primary voters for gun control.
But if Dean is the Democratic nominee, he could benefit in the general election from the cultural signals he has sent on guns and wanting to be "the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," said Robert J. Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control."
"In the sense that Dean has been painted as the most leftist Democrat, he can point to the gun issue and say `I'm not liberal on some issues,"' said Spitzer, a political scientist at the State University of New York at Cortland. "It helps him broaden his base."
Mary Leonard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.