JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Running for the Senate in Massachusetts, Mitt Romney once assured voters in a state with strong gun-control laws: "I don't line up with the NRA." Now the likely Republican presidential nominee, Romney will headline the National Rifle Association's annual convention Friday and assure tens of thousands of gun-rights activists that he's squarely on their side.
Coming just days after rival Rick Santorum dropped out of the nomination race, the NRA convention in St. Louis provides Romney an opportunity to shore up his credentials with an important conservative constituency that badly wants to oust Democratic President Barack Obama.
Romney leads a list of prominent Republicans — including Santorum, Newt Gingrich, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — who are scheduled to address more than 65,000 convention registrants during a session billed as a "celebration of American values." Although Obama has virtually ignored gun issues during his term, the NRA considers him a foe and plans to mount an aggressive effort against him.
The NRA has spent $20 million to $30 million in past presidential elections, said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. It hopes to exceed that amount this year in an effort that is likely to include mail, phone calls and TV, radio, Internet and newspaper ads, he said.
As the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee, Romney hopes to reap the rewards of the NRA's broad network, which includes more than 4 million dues-paying members.
"Governor Romney is a strong supporter of Second Amendment rights," said campaign spokesman Ryan Williams, referring to gun rights. "He's always supported the Second Amendment and as president would continue to support the Second Amendment."
Yet Romney's alignment with the NRA also comes at a time when gun laws have been under national scrutiny.
The NRA was a main backer of Florida's "stand your ground" law, which gives people latitude to use deadly force rather than retreat from danger. That self-defense law has been much discussed in relation to the February shooting in which a neighborhood watch volunteer fatally shot an unarmed teenager. After authorities initially declined to charge him, George Zimmerman was charged Wednesday with second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman's attorney has said the defendant will plead not guilty and invoke the "stand your ground" law.
Romney has said little about whether he favors such laws, though he has called the shooting a "terrible tragedy" and has said it was appropriate for prosecutors to look into the case.
After the shooting, Obama said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." And while he said at the time that he supported the investigation, he didn't address the issue of guns.
In fact, Obama has hardly talked about the issue since a couple of months after the January 2011 assassination attempt on Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Ariz., when the president promised to develop new steps on gun safety.
Romney hasn't always been in the NRA's good graces.
It was as a challenger to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy in 1994 that Romney professed not to line up with the group. When he was running for governor in 2002, the NRA shied away from making any endorsement and gave Romney's Democratic opponent a better rating on gun-rights issues.
Massachusetts quadrupled its gun-licensing fee while Romney was governor. He also signed a 2004 law that made permanent a ban on assault-type weapons, though it was coupled with measures backed by gun-rights groups, such as a lengthening of the firearm license period from four to six years and the creation of an appeals board for people seeking to restore their gun licenses.
As he was considering his first presidential run in 2006, Romney signed up for a lifetime membership in the National Rifle Association.
For Brian Dorsey — a central Missouri turkey farmer who declares "I'm all about gun-rights" — Romney's appearance at the NRA convention in St. Louis is an important element in assuring Dorsey's vote come November.
"It signals to me that he cares about gun owners and hunters," Dorsey said.
While some gun-control advocates might be turned off by Romney's association with the NRA, there's little likelihood such activists were going to vote for him anyway, leaving little political downside for Romney's appeals to NRA faithful, said Dave Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.
"In these days of polarization, you want to make sure your partisans know that you're on their side and don't leave any doubt," Robertson said. He added: "In some ways, he's quite lucky this is occurring in April, where he can shore up the base at this point and he still has a number of months to reassure independent moderates that he has their interest at heart."
Retired state fisheries division director Steve Eder is one of those independents still trying to decide whether to support Obama or Romney. An avid outdoorsman, Eder owns a variety of guns but is not an NRA member and considers himself a moderate when it comes to gun-control issues.
"I don't see President Obama as being an outdoorsman, nor do I really see Mitt Romney as that type of person either," said Eder, 61, of Jefferson City.
To Eder, that doesn't really matter. The economy commands greater attention. In this election, gun-rights are "secondary to a lot of other issues," he said.