FLINT, Mich. — Half an hour before the doors opened for a National Rifle Assn. get-out-the-vote rally here last week, Rich Hauxwell was standing in a line of more than 1,000 men and women that already stretched back to the parking lot.
Bearded and burly, Hauxwell looked like most of those milling around him except for one thing: a black satin jacket that identified him as an executive of Local 87 of the United Dairy and Bakery Workers Union in Saginaw. Hauxwell's union is backing Vice President Al Gore in the presidential election, but he had come to support Texas Gov. George W. Bush, even though on most issues he doesn't think much of the Republican.
"The gun issue is the issue, definitely," Hauxwell said. "If Gore was elected there would be no 2nd Amendment, cut and dried."
One night later, lifetime NRA member Robert Cromwell was cheering Gore at a Democratic rally in Flint. "Gun rights mean a lot to me," said Cromwell, who works for General Motors and belongs to the United Auto Workers union. "But Gore has a lot of other things going for him: The economy is the main thing. Social Security. Medicare. I considered voting for Bush on the gun issue, but I couldn't do that."
In their conflicted loyalties, Hauxwell and Cromwell are at the front lines of a shadow war that could tip the balance in the states that likely will decide the election. Across the industrial heartland--in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio--the most powerful political organizations on the ground tend to be the NRA and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In these big-shouldered states, where factory workers still bend metal during the week and tote hunting rifles into the woods on weekends, each group is feverishly laboring to mobilize its members--the NRA for Bush, the AFL-CIO for Gore.
To a striking degree, the AFL-CIO and the NRA are competing not only for the same type of voters--mostly white blue-collar men--but often literally for the same people: socially conservative union members. In labor's own polling, about 40% of union members in states such as Pennsylvania, Missouri and Michigan identify themselves as sympathetic to the NRA.
With Bush and Gore so closely matched in these critical states, the NRA and the AFL-CIO are clawing for every one of those voters--and scratching against each other more directly than ever before. "We are going to take them on for the hearts and minds of our members," promises Mark Gaffney, the president of the AFL-CIO in Michigan.
To which NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre replies, in effect: Bring it on. The NRA, he promises, will compete "for every blue-collar, hard-working freedom-loving worker in the heartland of America."
Few issues in this year's campaign have played out in a more unexpected way than gun control. It was supposed to be a strong card for Gore--who has backed new gun control measures, including background checks for purchases at gun shows and photo-licensing for handgun purchasers--but it's proved much more complex.
Though polls show majority support for most of the gun control measures Gore is offering, surveys often find pluralities agreeing with the NRA and Bush that tougher enforcement of existing law is more important than passing new measures. That helps explain why Bush, despite his opposition to ostensibly popular new gun control measures, generally runs even or ahead of Gore when voters are asked who can best handle the gun issue.
Against that backdrop, Gore appears to have lost confidence in his gun control agenda. In his second debate with Bush, Gore never mentioned his centerpiece proposal--the call for licensing new handgun owners--until Bush criticized it; in the third debate, Gore redirected a question about gun control into a discussion of shrinking government so fast that viewers might have been wondering if he had a gun at his back.
"If Gore could have mumbled through it," LaPierre said, gloating, "he would have."
The politics of these industrial battleground states explains much of Gore's reticence. His campaign has felt secure in states such as California, New York and New Jersey, where gun control unambiguously works for Gore. But in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, where hunting is a tradition, the issue is at best a wash for Gore--and in some places a clear negative.
"The gun issue helps Gore nationwide," said political scientist Robert J. Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." "But it doesn't help him in the electoral college."