If you're searching for photo ops of Mitt Romney in blaze orange hunting gear, stop looking.
Romney has dropped efforts to brand himself an avid hunter this campaign cycle after being famously ridiculed for portraying himself as one during the 2008 race. But he hasn't stopped positioning himself as a friend to gun owners as he seeks to shore up conservative support ahead of the November election.
Romney spent a portion of Friday reaching out directly to gun owners gathered for the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in St. Louis. He delivered a speech broadly attacking President Barack Obama for failing to protect Americans' economic, religious and personal freedoms—highlighting gun owners in that final attack.
"We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen and those who seek to protect their home and family," Romney said. "President Obama has not; I will."
Absent the pretense of being a hunter, Romney argued Friday that he, unlike the president, will not support new gun laws and will protect Second Amendment rights in America.
But Romney used the bulk of his speech Friday to broadly focus on all freedoms.
Romney criticized the president for viewing the Constitution as a "living and evolving" document and for attempting to "browbeat" the Supreme Court, a reference to the president's recent stern language regarding the court's future decision on Obamacare.
"He thinks our nation's highest court is to be revered and respected—as long as it remains faithful to the original intent of Barack Obama," Romney said.
Romney also attacked the president for supporting the EPA over two business owners, supporting contraception coverage—even for religious institutions opposed to it—and for expanding government, raising taxes and imposing excessive regulations.
Romney's broad speech notably did not include any mention of his personal experiences with guns.
The former Massachusetts governor has long had a rocky relationship with gun owners, made even more questionable by his now-legendary hunting-speak delivered during the 2008 campaign.
"I'm not a big-game hunter," Romney told reporters in 2007. "I've made it very clear. I've always been, if you will, a rodent and rabbit hunter. All right? Small varmints, if you will." He was ridiculed for the line, which exposed him as anything but a serious hunter.
Additionally, when asked if he owned a gun he was touting during a conversation with reporters that year, Romney revealed the gun he was talking about was actually owned by his son.
But this election has been different.
During a January Fox News debate, Romney didn't even try to cast himself as a big-time hunter, saying, "I'm not the great hunter that some on this stage—probably Rick Perry, my guess is you are a serious hunter—I'm not a serious hunter, but I must admit I guess I enjoy the sport and when I get invited I'm delighted to be able to go hunting."
The Obama campaign pre-empted Romney's speech Friday by having former Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, an Obama supporter, issue an op-ed that poked holes in Romney's commitment to Second Amendment rights and accused him of "pandering shamelessly to voters."
"When Romney against Ted Kennedy ran for Senate in Massachusetts on a platform of gun-control measures like the Brady Bill and assault-weapons ban, he asserted, 'I don't line up with the NRA,'" Strickland wrote. "Now he's going to stand before that same group and—with a straight face—tell its members that he's one of them. That dog won't hunt, as the saying goes."
Strickland wrote that Romney also failed to follow through on a promise to veto efforts to weaken state gun laws and actually made them worse when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Strickland also highlighted Romney's infamous past hunting rhetoric.
"I'd put President Barack Obama's record up against Romney's any day," Strickland wrote. "The president has made clear that he supports and respects the Second Amendment, and through three years in office he's done exactly that. The NRA may not always agree with the president, but the American people know where he stands."
Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich as well as Rick Santorum, who suspended his campaign April 10, were also slated to address the NRA Friday afternoon.
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