RACINE, W.Va. -- In a few short weeks, just as the clock ticks down on the last days of the presidential race, West Virginia's fall hunting season will begin.
Thousands of people around this important swing state will take their guns and head for its verdant forests and broad valleys in search of fowl and other wildlife, just as their fathers and grandfathers did before them.
And some of John F. Kerry's supporters here hope the Massachusetts Democrat will be among them.
Democrats in West Virginia know that many of their state's voters guard their gun rights jealously, and that their fear in 2000 that Al Gore was out to take their weapons -- stoked by Republicans and the National Rifle Association -- helped seal the former vice president's defeat.
That's why Kerry stood on a stage here last week, proudly hoisting a shotgun and telling a throng of mine workers that he would like to go "gobble huntin' " with them as soon as possible.
The scene boosted Kerry's image with at least one voter attending Kerry's Labor Day rally. "It cleared one problem up for me, with the guns," said Paul Cooper, 62, of Madison, who wore his Navy garrison cap under the hot sun. "He can't be against our guns, or want to take mine, if he's got one of his own."
The potency of the gun issue also explains why party officials hope Kerry will find time to go bird hunting here before Nov. 2 and create another unmistakable snapshot West Virginians can take to the ballot box.
"Having Kerry come down for bird season, I think, would be a nice opportunity . . . for him to show that, if this guy has such a problem with guns, then how come he's down here hunting?" said G. Nicholas Casey, chairman of the West Virginia Democratic Party.
For many West Virginians, the notion that somebody might limit their access to guns "is like telling people I'm going to take your children and your wedding pictures," Casey said. "We've got to overcome the failure of the last campaign and really set the record straight."
Still, conquering the gun issue will be a stiff challenge for Kerry, who describes himself as a hunter since childhood. Even as he strives to avoid being seen as an antigun liberal, the candidate is trying to appeal to independent voters who predominantly favor gun control.
Last week in Washington, Kerry attacked President Bush for failing to push for an extension of the federal assault-weapons ban, a measure that gun rights groups have fiercely opposed. The Massachusetts Democrat had rarely mentioned his support for gun control laws until the ban was about to lapse, aware that many members of his own party who represent rural areas oppose such restrictions.
Kerry has worked aggressively to stake out a centrist position on the gun issue. He has been outspoken about his own experience with guns -- going pheasant hunting with a local sheriff in Iowa last year, forming a group in April called Sportsmen for Kerry, and putting forth a "Sportsman's Bill of Rights." That list includes support for gun rights, easier access to hunting areas, and environmental measures to preserve wildlife.
Kerry's approach mirrors a strategy presented last year by the gun control group Americans for Gun Safety in a paper about how Democrats could tap a so-called "gun swing" group -- voters who would otherwise back a Republican but would be willing to vote for a Democrat who stressed gun rights and gun safety, rather than staying silent on the issue or talking only about gun restrictions. Democratic pollsters Mark J. Penn and Peter Brodnitz found that up to 21 percent of voters they polled fit this description.
The pollsters also wrote that "silence is not the answer, since Democrats who do not speak out on gun issues are presumed to oppose gun rights."
Terry Giles, Kerry's West Virginia campaign manager, said: "One thing that we were not going to allow to happen in this campaign was to let the administration or surrogates paint John Kerry into a corner as someone who is antigun, because he's not."
Still, Kerry's attempt to tack toward the middle on the gun issue has invited accusations from the Bush campaign that he is being disingenuous. Kerry is trying to "present an image to American voters that counters the facts, and the fact is that John Kerry has an F rating from the National Rifle Association," said Kevin Madden, a Bush campaign spokesman.
Andrew Arulanandam, an NRA spokesman, said last week that Kerry "is talking out of both sides of his mouth."
The results of a recent Associated Press/ Ipsos poll indicated that those efforts might be working -- 69 percent of gun owners, the survey found, said they supported Bush.