U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum traveled across the state yesterday showcasing an endorsement from the National Rifle Association, an asset whose value will be tested in his uphill battle against Democratic challenger Bob Casey.
The state of Pennsylvania leads the nation in the number of licensed hunters. Its roughly 300,000 NRA members constitute the largest per capita representation of NRA members in the nation, according to Charles Cox., executive director of the group's political action committee.
One of the reasons that Mr. Casey's candidacy was attractive to Democratic leaders, however, was their calculation that his opposition to gun control would moot an issue that has caused the defections of socially conservative Democratic voters.
As Mr. Casey tried to bolster his 2nd Amendment credentials, his bus tour this summer was studded with visits to hunters' groups.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief executive officer, traveled the state with Mr. Santorum yesterday. At the Pitcairn-Monroeville Sportsmen's Club, he acknowledged Mr. Casey's general support for 2nd Amendment rights, but said that the group's choice was clear, based on Mr. Santorum's record in Congress.
He cited the Republican's role in resisting parliamentary attempts to sidetrack a bill this year that would shield gun manufacturers from lawsuits based on their products' use by criminals.
"We knew we had the votes if it came to a roll call. The problem was some people wanted to keep it from coming to the floor," Mr. LaPierre said. "He was the most effective advocate of bringing it to the floor and getting a vote scheduled. He used his influence to get it to the floor. Without that, we would have lost every American gun company."
Mr. Santorum followed Mr. LaPierre to the podium before about 150 partisans at the sportsmen's club. In a race in which he has trailed from the start, he appealed for their support in contacting fellow hunters and assisting in get-out-the-vote efforts in the final two weeks before the election.
"I've stood with you for 16 years; you've stood with me for 16 years," he said. "Now I'm asking for your help for just two weeks; that's not that much."
While Mr. Santorum posed for photographs and autographed bumper stickers that read, "I'd rather be hunting with Rick Santorum," Mr. Cox said the NRA would be active in coming weeks with direct mail and other independent expenditures on Mr. Santorum's behalf.
He declined to estimate the group's budget for independent expenditures in the state, but said, "Our most effective action is the one-on-one efforts at the grass roots. I'm not going to tip our hand, but I can assure you that we'll be active."
That's significant in a state where many school districts schedule a holiday for the first day of deer hunting season. Still, the NRA has had a mixed record in recent state elections.
Mr. Casey had its support in the Democratic primary for governor in 2002, only to lose in a landslide to Gov. Ed Rendell. Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry both carried the state, albeit narrowly, over the NRA's choice, President Bush, in the last two presidential elections.
Politics Editor James O'Toole can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1562.