But he is nevertheless making a play for pro-gun voters in rural Pennsylvania.
By highlighting his background in constitutional law and downplaying his voting record, Obama is engaging in a quiet but targeted drive to win over an important constituency that on the surface might seem hostile to his views.
The need to craft a strategy aimed at pro-gun voters underscores the potency of the issue in Pennsylvania, which claims one of the nation’s highest per capita membership rates in the National Rifle Association.
It also could provide clues as to whether Obama, as one of the Senate’s more liberal members, can position himself as an acceptable choice to a conservative-minded demographic in later primary contests and in the general election.
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Guns and Moses
“Guns are a cultural lens through which they view candidates,” said Jim Kessler, vice president for policy at Third Way, a progressive think tank. “If you are seen as way off on that issue, then you seem way off on everything. If you are seen as OK, if the lens is clearer, then they continue to look at you and size you up on other things.”
“For Obama, who is less known and is from Chicago, a city guy and an African American, the feeling is that he is anti-gun,” Kessler continued. “By handling the Second Amendment correctly, he starts to get a hearing among these folks.”
Obama aides would not discuss the campaign’s strategy. While the effort so far in Pennsylvania appears modest, it is noteworthy for a race that has largely avoided such direct engagement with gun owners.
The campaign has asked gun rights advocates like state Rep. Dan Surra, a Democrat from rural Elk County with an “A+” rating from the NRA, to form a coalition of supporters who can vouch for Obama.
“It is clear out there that I am for Obama, and they have reached out to me as a sportsman and a gun owner,” Surra said Thursday. “There has been an outreach to pro-gun legislators, pro-gun people who are sympathetic to Obama’s message.”
The campaign sent an e-mail this week to the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, saying it would “appreciate all sportsmen taking time to learn the facts: Our candidate strongly supports the right and traditions of sportsmen throughout Pennsylvania and the United States of America.”
And with an endorsement last month from Sen. Bob Casey Jr., Obama got a boost within a community that the Pennsylvania Democrat has courted assiduously. As part of an initiative to move beyond his party’s traditional bases during the 2006 Senate campaign, Casey visited stock car races, demolition derbies and gun clubs. Campaign operatives to both senators are now working closely together.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton does not appear to be making the same level of effort. She has reminded audiences in the last few months that she learned to shoot a gun during childhood vacations in Scranton and bagged a duck as an adult. But neither the state Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs nor her pro-gun Democratic supporters have heard of any specific campaign outreach.
The pitch from Obama may prove to be a tough sell with this state, where polling shows four in 10 voters — with higher percentages in rural areas — own a firearm. But it is a requisite if he hopes to expand his appeal beyond the state’s metropolitan areas.
When gun owners organized a rally at the state Capitol in Harrisburg last year, nearly half of the 50 legislative sponsors were Democrats. And in the last six months, the General Assembly has thwarted three gun control mesures, with Democratic assistance, including one this past week that would have made it mandatory to report lost and stolen handguns.
“It’s interesting that it took until Pennsylvania for really anybody to talk about the gun issues,” Kessler said. “It shows you are down to battling for a small number of votes in a small number of states that are starting to look like the interior of Pennsylvania — West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana.”
Obama has long backed gun-control measures, including a ban on semiautomatic weapons and concealed weapons, and a limit on handgun purchases to one a month. He has declined to take a stance on the legality of the handgun prohibition in Washington, D.C., which the U.S. Supreme Court is reviewing, although Obama has voiced support for the right of state and local governments to regulate guns.
In the Senate, he and Clinton broke on one vote, in July 2006. Siding with gun-rights advocates, Obama voted to prohibit the confiscation of firearms during an emergency or natural disaster. Clinton was one of 16 senators to oppose the amendment.
A two-page white paper on Obama’s website doesn’t mention his voting record.
Instead, he introduces himself as a former constitutional law professor who “believes the Second Amendment creates an individual right, and he greatly respects the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms.”
“He will protect the rights of hunters and other law-abiding Americans to purchase, own, transport, and use guns for the purposes of hunting and target shooting,” the paper states. “He also believes that the right is subject to reasonable and common sense regulation.”
Melody Zullinger, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs who received the Obama campaign e-mail on his gun record, said Obama sounds like he is “speaking out of both sides of his mouth.”
“I was at one of our county meetings last night and I mentioned this to [federation members],” Zullinger said Friday of the Obama outreach. “Everyone basically blew it off and weren’t buying it.”
Obama’s approach is similar to one advocated by Third Way, which issued a seven-step blueprint in 2006 to close the “gun gap” with Republicans. In a memo on its website, the group urges progressives to avoid silence on gun issues, and instead “redefine the issue in a way that appeals to gun owning voters.”
Among the key steps, according to Third Way: “Own the Second Amendment” and “Take Your Message Directly to Gun Owners — Don’t Let Your Opponent Define You.”
The National Rifle Association posted an article on its website in February warning members against buying into Obama and Clinton, who were using the “scripted rhetorical tricks in the Third Way playbook to the letter.”
Kim Stolfer, chairman of Firearm Owners Against Crime, a political action committee that conducts a candidate questionnaire on behalf of Pennsylvania’s gun groups, said he has not heard from any of the candidates — Obama, Clinton or Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican nominee.
For now, even if Obama hasn’t won over the gun ownership groups, his outreach efforts show signs of paying some dividends.
State Rep. Tim Solobay, a pro-gun Democrat who is uncommitted but leaning toward Clinton, said he began asking questions about Obama’s record after he saw Surra, one of the highest-ranking gun advocates in the General Assembly, wearing an Obama button.
“It was very surprising to me,” Solobay said. “He is a sportsman. Guys like him carried the mantle for years as pro-gun Democrats. There may be some legitimacy to it. This is what Danny said to me: ‘He has got a much more pro-gun side than what even he anticipated or thought.’ I have not read his informatin yet. But I take Danny's opinion very highly."