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Stumping in Michigan in October, the National Rifle Association’s Charlton Heston proclaimed this “the most important election since the Civil War.” And the venerable gun lobby spent aggressively to drive this point home in state and national races across the United States. But in Colorado and Oregon, gun-safety ballot initiatives passed by wide margins on Nov. 7. Presidential battleground states Pennsylvania and Michigan went to Al Gore — despite a strong NRA push to deliver gun-owning labor voters in those states to George W. Bush. Several Senate candidates supported by the NRA — Spencer Abraham R-Mich., John Ashcroft, R-Mo., Rod Grams, R-Minn., and Bill McCollum, R-Fla. — fell to Democratic challengers. Is the NRA shooting blanks? Or was it actually outgunned? In fact, the Virginia-based advocacy group spent far more than it has in past campaigns, but all sides of the emotional gun debate invested more money than ever before in a single election cycle. That may not be surprising in a year when political spending by single-issue advocacy groups pushed through the roof. But this election’s high-priced gun battle is noteworthy because it heralds the arrival of Clintonesque centrism in the historically polarized gun debate. And it may point the way for advocacy groups on other hotly contested issues. The NRA spent between $15 million and $20 million this election cycle, a nearly threefold increase over prior years, according to a spokesman. Its political action committee plunked down about $5 million in independent expenditures to bolster or stymie individual federal and state candidates — compared with $1.7 million in 1996. But gun-control advocates also spent more heavily than ever before. Handgun Control Inc. and its PAC, both sister organizations of the Center for Handgun Violence, poured a total of $5 million into television and radio ads in several states and into the gun safety referendums in Colorado and Oregon. By comparison, Handgun Control’s political director, Joseph Sudbay, says his group spent a total of $320,000 on the 1996 elections. Americans for Gun Safety, formed just six months ago by Internet executive Andrew McKelvey, spent $2.8 million on the two state referendums alone. NRA Director of Public Affairs William Powers dismisses the notion that the organization’s high profile and costly politicking proved ineffectual. “You win some and you lose some,” Powers says. “You have to look at the whole picture. We feel real good about some of the gains we made.” Powers points to successful Senate candidates Rick Santorum, R-Penn., George Allen, R-Va., and Zell Miller, D-Ga., as wins for the NRA. The two ballot initiatives — which call for background checks of would-be gun purchasers at gun shows — were “not our highest priority in this election,” he says, adding that “we’re hoping [those initiatives] can be rectified at the legislative level — maybe at the federal level.” And, of course, with the presidential election still undecided, Powers notes that the NRA still might gain a more receptive White House. ‘DRAMATIC SHIFT’ SEEN But to national gun-control advocates, last week’s election was a signal of the NRA’s diminishing appeal beyond its most hardcore members. The adoption of thorough gun-show background checks in Colorado and Oregon represents a “dramatic shift on gun safety issues in this country,” says Jonathan Cowan, president of Americans for Gun Safety. “If you bring the right message and the right messenger, even in pro-gun Western states, people are ready for gun-safety laws,” Cowan says. In Cowan’s case, the right message was the one his group pushed in ads in both states: It’s fine to own guns, no one wants to take them away, but everyone can agree it should be harder for criminals to buy them. The messenger was Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who publicly endorsed the ballot measures in ads funded by Americans for Gun Safety. “John McCain shifting — by his own admittance — in coming to this view clearly had a significant effect,” Cowan argues. His proof: the 69 percent vote for background checks in Colorado, and the 61 percent vote for them in Oregon. Those results come as a fairly ringing endorsement of the fledgling Americans for Gun Safety. Its founder, McKelvey, is CEO of TMP Worldwide, the company that launched the job-search Web site Monster.com. He actually sat on the board of Handgun Control for a year before resigning to form the new group this summer. His goal: to stake out a policy position on gun safety that accommodates the right to own guns. The 65-year-old McKelvey is a registered Republican, but he enlisted former staffers for Democrats to run Americans for Gun Safety. Cowan most recently served as Andrew Cuomo’s chief of staff at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Jennifer Palmieri, a former deputy White House press secretary, serves as communications director. Gun control groups — including Handgun Control — don’t like to acknowledge a right to own guns. But Handgun Control’s Sudbay hastens to dispel any suggestion of conflict between his group and McKelvey’s. “We’re all trying to achieve the same goal,” he says. The two groups worked as allies this fall. While Americans for Gun Safety poured nearly $3 million into the ballot measures in Colorado and Oregon, Handgun Control put up $150,000 in each state. Sudbay’s group focused its energy — and money — on political ads aimed at specific candidates. Sudbay put $1.9 million into anti-Bush ads — one featured the actor who plays the president on “West Wing,” Martin Sheen — that ran in Cleveland, Detroit, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Toledo, and West Palm Beach. Another $300,000 went for a “heavy buy” of airtime in West Palm Beach and Tampa for an ad that attacked McCollum’s gun record. Last week, Sudbay spent $120,000 for a radio ad in Michigan opposing Sen. Abraham. Handgun Control’s ad spending pales in comparison with the NRA’s. But Sudbay claims that the NRA’s high visibility may have worked to his advantage. “They have so much money that they don’t have to think strategically, and they kind of overblow it,” Sudbay says. “Their message works with their hardcore members, but not with average Americans, particularly women.” As a result, Sudbay claims, NRA endorsement of some candidates, particularly Sen. Abraham, proved to be a liability. The NRA’s Powers hotly contests that notion. “It certainly wasn’t a liability for Santorum, or Miller, or Allen,” he says. “If nothing else, this election demonstrates the difference between ultra-liberals in D.C. that play to cocktail parties in New York and Beverly Hills — but are totally out of step with mainstream America.”

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