CHICAGO — Al Gore attacked George W. Bush Thursday as a pawn of the Washington gun lobby, quoting a National Rifle Assn. leader who said that electing Bush would make the Oval Office an adjunct of the NRA.
The Texas governor brushed aside the vice president's attack as well as the assertion by Kayne Robinson, first vice president of the powerful lobbying group. "I don't want to disappoint the man," Bush said. "But I'll be setting up shop in the White House. It'll be my office."
The back-and-forth came as Robinson's remarks at a February NRA meeting in Los Angeles surfaced in a TV advertisement financed by the gun lobby's nemesis, Handgun Control Inc. Robinson told NRA members that if Bush wins the White House "we'll have a president . . . where we work out of their office."
Robinson also said the NRA enjoys "unbelievably friendly relations" with Bush and said the governor's election would ensure "a Supreme Court that will back us to the hilt."
The remarks are featured in a new 30-second spot that is set to air in seven cities across the country, including Sacramento. The ad attacks Bush, a staunch ally of the NRA, for liberalizing gun laws in Texas.
Gore quickly seized on Robinson's comments to press his claim that Bush is an extremist masquerading as a moderate. "Gov. Bush has convinced the NRA that he wants to take the gun lobbyists out of the lobby and put them right in the Oval Office," said Gore, who hastily added a section on gun violence to a speech he delivered to health-care writers in Chicago.
Citing research by the American Medical Assn., Gore said gun violence costs the nation $2.3 billion annually, and Bush as president "would actually make a bad situation much worse."
"Maybe he would pick Charlton Heston as the next surgeon general," Gore quipped, referring to the actor who serves as the NRA's president.
Bush was asked about Robinson's remarks even before Gore spoke.
At a morning news conference in Mission Viejo, on the second day of a California swing, the presumptive GOP nominee dismissed suggestions he would be beholden to the NRA. "It sounds like politics," Bush said of Robinson's boast.
"I make my positions on what I think is right," the governor went on. "If this is an attempt by my opponent to frighten people, I'm not going to let that happen. I make [up] my mind based on what I think is right and reasonable."
In Washington, Robinson minimized the tempest stirred by his remarks. "I was a little surprised that this is a big surprise that we support George Bush and they support Gore and Clinton," Robinson told reporters, after showing up outside a news conference where Handgun Control unveiled its ad.
"We think that George Bush is more friendly to the 2nd Amendment than Al Gore, and I don't think that's a big news flash," said Robinson, who also serves as chairman of the Iowa Republican Party. "For people like that to complain about us . . . possibly having a seat at the table so that our views can be heard is just a little bit hypocritical."
Also Thursday, gun industry officials said settlement talks have broken down between gun manufacturers and 31 municipalities who had sued to hold the firearm makers liable for the costs of responding to shootings. Government officials had hoped a recent settlement deal with gun maker Smith & Wesson, which agreed to alter some of its manufacturing and marketing practices, would spur settlements by the others.
But representatives for some gun makers, hoping that a Bush win in November would lessen the pressure on them to settle, are putting off further talks until after the election.
Gore in recent days has embarked on an aggressive effort to persuade voters that Bush is far more conservative than he lets on. Strategists were plainly gleeful at the opportunity to turn the NRA's words against Bush on an issue--gun control--of great interest to swing voters. Chris Lehane, a Gore spokesman, called the tape of Robinson's remarks "the proverbial smoking gun."
For his part, Gore blamed the nation's "absurdly high level of gun violence" on "political malpractice by close allies of the gun industry. . . . This is clearly a major health issue, [but] my opponent . . . doesn't seem to realize this."
Handgun Control officials said they bought a tape of the NRA official's comments for $20 from an Internet chat room sponsored by gun control opponents. The ad is intended to air in the District of Columbia and six key markets: Austin, Texas; Lansing, Mich.; Denver; Columbus, Ohio; St. Louis; and Sacramento.
Some of those television markets, including Denver and Lansing, cover towns where children have been involved in high-profile shootings. But at least one station, KMOV in St. Louis, was still deciding Thursday whether to air the ad, which was produced by MacWilliams Cosgrove Smith Robinson, the Washington media firm that recently advised Democrat Bill Bradley in his failed presidential bid.