Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney addresses the National… (Karen Bleier, AFP/Getty…)
ST. LOUIS — Mitt Romney may not have been the sentimental favorite among the speakers at the National Rifle Assn.'s annual convention. That title might have gone to former Sen. Rick Santorum, or to even to Fox News host and retired Lt. Col. Oliver L. North.
But Romney was clearly the headliner Friday in his new role as the presumptive Republican nominee for president. And he drew a warm reception for a speech in which he attacked President Obama for "employing every imaginable ruse and ploy" to restrict gun rights, which Romney pledged not to do if elected in November.
Although gun control groups have complained that Obama has done little to support their cause, Romney took a page from the NRA leadership, which has been saying that the president has been biding his time, waiting for a second term to crack down on firearms. He warned that Obama would "remake" the Supreme Court in a second term, threatening constitutional freedoms.
"In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of reelection," Romney told a crowd estimated at 6,000 in the cavernous Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis. "As he told the Russian president last month when he thought no one else was listening, after a reelection he'll have a lot more, quote, 'flexibility' to do what he wants. I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that, but looking at his first three years, I have a very good idea."
Referring specifically to the right to bear arms, Romney said: "If we are going to safeguard our 2nd Amendment, it is time to elect a president who will defend the rights President Obama ignores or minimizes. I will."
Romney spoke at the NRA's Leadership Forum, which always draws top conservative speakers. Also speaking Friday were Santorum, who has effectively ended his campaign for president, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has stopped actively campaigning.
Gingrich, in keeping with his reputation for outsized thinking, chided the NRA leadership for being "timid" and told the crowd that, if elected, he would push the United Nations to expand gun rights to the entire world.
"The right to bear arms comes from our creator, not from our government," he said, to cheers. "Far fewer women would be raped, far fewer children would be killed ... and far fewer dictators would survive if people had the right to bear arms everywhere on the planet."
Other speakers included a panoply of Republican stars, among them North, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri and Rep. Darrell Issa of Vista.
Romney supported strict gun control measures as governor of Massachusetts and once said he didn't "line up" with the gun rights group. But the NRA leadership has thrown its weight behind him, whom it sees as preferable to Obama, and Romney received several standing ovations during his speech.
Although Obama has not been responsible for any notable gun control measures, the organization has been sharply critical of some of his appointments, especially Eric H. Holder Jr. as attorney general.
Before Romney spoke, the NRA's legislative director, Chris Cox, showed a video clip that he said depicted a Holder speech from 1995. In it, the future attorney general spoke about the need to "really brainwash people to think about guns in a vastly different way."
"So let's state this in very clear terms," Cox said. "President Obama needs to fire Eric Holder, and in November, we need to fire the president."
The Obama campaign hit back with a statement attacking Romney, and it issued a hefty file of news clippings intended to show that he had a checkered history on gun rights.
"The president's record makes clear that he supports and respects the 2nd Amendment, and we'll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters," campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt said. "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. That varmint won't hunt."
Outside the convention hall, half a dozen or so soggy, union-affiliated demonstrators stood in the rain holding signs that said: "Romney: 100% out of touch."
"We're basically here to expose Romney as a flip-flopper with the NRA," said Ed McNees, president of United Auto Workers Local 282 in St. Louis. "In '94, he was for the Brady bill and against assault weapons … and now he's a newly found supporter of the NRA."
With McNees was Steve Johnson, a local Teamsters organizer, who said Romney "doesn't look like anybody who hangs out at any of the places I might hunt." Leaders of the UAW and the Teamsters have pledged support to Obama in the 2012 campaign, although both McNees and Johnson said that they were there as gun enthusiasts, not Obama supporters.