ST. LOUIS -- Mitt Romney delivered a speech on Friday broadly decrying President Obama's "assault" on basic freedoms -- especially gun rights -- in a bid to court the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its 4 million or so members nationwide.
Romney largely avoided wading into thorny issues of gun control and the Second Amendment, issues which have dogged his past campaigns, and stuck to broader criticism of the president before this largely conservative audience.
Michael Conroy / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks April 13, 2012, at the National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis, Mo.
"President Obama is moving us away from our founders vision," Romney told several thousand members of the NRA gathered here today. "Instead of limited government he is leading us toward limited freedom and limited opportunity."
Romney's speech today, in which he mentioned the word "gun" only once, focused largely on broad themes of freedoms, and, his advisers said, was designed to be one of several speeches which would "crystallize" the choice for voters between the presumptive GOP nominee and Obama.
To that end, Romney further pressed his vision of the fall election as a defining choice between two different destinies, and accused the Obama administration of curtailing Americans' personal, religious and economic freedoms. He referred to the NRA as a single-issue group -- that issue being freedom.
Eighteen minutes into his speech, Romney pivoted to Second Amendment issues, pledging to stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsman and other gun owners, and accusing the president of failing to do so.
"We need a President who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families. President Obama has not; I will," he said.
"If we are going to safeguard our Second Amendment, it is time to elect a president who will defend the rights President Obama ignores or minimizes," Romney added. "And I will protect the Second Amendment rights of the American people."
Democrats shot back at Romney before his speech was even delivered.
“The president's record makes clear the he supports and respects the second amendment, and we'll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters. Mitt Romney is going to have difficulty explaining why he quadrupled fees on gun owners in Massachusetts then lied about being a lifelong hunter in an act of shameless pandering," Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement this morning. "That varmint won't hunt.”
Romney's history with second amendment and gun-ownership issues is a colorful one, from saying "I don't line up with the NRA," during his 1994 senate campaign, to being forced to backtrack on his skill as a hunter in 2008, ultimately admitting he only shot "small varmints." This campaign cycle, Romney has laughed about his lack of skill as a hunter, including with comedian Jeff Foxworthy in Alabama, whom he joked could help him figure out which end of the rifle to point.
The Republican frontrunner's speech also came, though, at one of the biggest recent flashpoints for gun rights in recent memory. The Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida has sparked nationwide coverage of "stand your ground" laws -- the self-defense law under which George Zimmerman, the man charged with second degree murder in Martin's death, is mounting his criminal defense.
Romney didn't address those laws in his speech, though his campaign said in a briefing with reporters on Friday morning that the former Massachusetts governor would defer to states to determine their own laws on that matter.
For Romney, winning over the NRA's roughly 4 million members nationwide will be a crucial part of rallying the party's base for November's elections. Conversations with NRA members here suggested he has a tough -- though certainly not insurmountable -- road ahead of him.
Mary Brucker, a retired IRS worker and proud hunter of moose who showed off photos of a successful hunt this summer in Alberta, Canada, was "torn" on Romney as an advocate for gun-owners' issues, saying she was considering not voting this fall.
"He's not really committed to our ideals and foundations," Brucker, who had also supported Santorum, said with a sigh.
Bob and Bonnie Merrill, auto shop owners from Maine, told NBC before Romney's speech they worried he was "wishy-washy" on the second amendment, but that while they had originally hoped to support Rick Santorum, they would "absolutely" back Romney against President Obama.
"I think he's better than Obama," Mrs. Merrill laughed when asked her feelings about Governor Romney's positions on gun issues.
"I think anybody is better than Obama when it comes to gun issues," her husband interjected.
But gun issues have largely fallen to the backburner in this election cycle. In a bow toward the dominant issue this week -- the women vote -- Romney's wife, Ann, offered a brief introduction of her husband.
"Let me give a shout out to all moms that are working, and by the way all dads that are working. We love all of you," she said, following a few day's worth of coverage of Mrs. Romney's decision to be a homemaker when her children were younger.
And Mitt Romney said of the issue in his introduction of Ann: "I happen to believe that all moms are working moms, and if you have five sons, your work is never over."