The NRA Convention as a 2012 Cattle Call
Leading GOP figures addressed the gun-rights organization's high-profile meeting.


Jim Geraghty

Charlotte, N.C. — The 2012 presidential election wasn’t high on the minds of the NRA convention’s organizers, or of most of the attendees. But mainstream-media voices declared that the speaker lineup “looks like the conservative roundup for the 2012 GOP primaries,” and it’s hard to imagine a Republican winning the party’s nomination without a reasonably solid record on protecting the Second Amendment. Whenever a large, geographically diverse group of conservatives congregates, those who hope to carry the conservative banner will appear.

So, indulging the media’s obsession with presidential races for a moment, how did the big names do in Charlotte?

Gov. Haley Barbour, Mississippi: Barbour was the convention’s leadoff speaker. Perhaps more than anyone who followed, Barbour stepped into the role of a leader of an immediate political crusade; he noted that “the political environment for conservatives and Republicans in spring of 2010 is better than it was in 1994. That’s just a fact. . . . We can’t wait for 2012 to start taking our country back.” Emphasizing that he didn’t want the discussion diverted to presidential buzz, Barbour quoted FedEx CEO Fred Smith that “the main thing is to keep the main thing, the main thing,” and explained that for gun owners and conservatives, the 2010 elections remain the main thing. “The most powerful weapon in American politics is when you say to someone who respects you, ‘I’m voting for this candidate.’ It’s more powerful than any TV ad or anything that comes in the mail.”

Barbour is a respected governor, and he managed to bring his state through Katrina without the breakdown and chaos that marked neighboring Louisiana. As head of the Republican Governors Association, he could have another major feather in his cap if we see significant GOP wins in governors’ races this fall. (Unlike his friends coordinating House and Senate campaigns, Barbour’s candidates can’t run against Washington.)

But the NRA’s Chris Cox followed Barbour’s speech with “thank you for those remarks, and thank you for that accent,” hitting on an unfair but unavoidable obstacle for Barbour: He looks and sounds like a caricature of a deep-South politician, and the optics of a white, hefty, middle-aged Mississippian running against the reelection bid of the first African-American president will be an obstacle, to say the least.

Sen. John Thune, South Dakota: The optics for Thune are the opposite; the man who ended the Senate career of Tom Daschle is tall, tan, and out of central casting for a crusading senator. But Thune is surprisingly soft-spoken, and his remarks took the unusual tack of denouncing an anti-gun president, an anti-gun speaker of the House, and liberal domination of most of Washington, and then listing recent victories for gun owners in Congress, all under that same liberal domination.

His opening remarks were classically conservative, and delivered in the tone one would expect from a presidential candidate: “We face a choice of more government and less freedom or less government and more freedom. . . . Right now, the prevailing vision in Washington is of government — more and more government.” But soon he was noting that the Senate had recently seen 62 votes to ensure the District of Columbia complied with the Heller decision on gun rights, 67 votes to ensure the right to carry firearms in national parks, and 68 votes for a provision that allows Amtrak passengers to carry unloaded and locked handguns in checked baggage. The incongruent themes — our liberties are endangered, but we’ve been winning a lot lately — made for a less-than-perfectly smooth speech, but there’s no doubt that Thune enjoyed warm relations with the audience and would be a likeable, if understated, contender if he threw his hat in the ring.