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Romney shares NRA convention stage with wife in pitch to women

By Jake Wagman, St. Louis Post-Dispatch –

ST. LOUIS — Facing the prospect of a less-than-enthusiastic crowd at Friday’s National Rifle Association convention, Mitt Romney, who has a mixed record on gun issues, brought in his own secret weapon.

“My sweetheart,” Romney told the audience, “Ann Romney.”

Mitt Romney — who once vowed not to erode tough state gun laws in his home state — may never win the hearts and minds of gun owners in this campaign.

But, given their disdain for the Democratic incumbent, he will likely win their votes, one reason Friday’s speech was a pivot toward the general election.

The former Massachusetts governor effectively clinched the nomination Tuesday, when former Pennsylvania Rick Santorum suspended his campaign.

Appearing in front of the nation’s largest gun-rights group, Romney sought out a larger audience, honing in on economic issues and continuing his campaign’s pitch to middle-class women that began this week when a Democratic commentator brought Ann Romney into a debate about women and the workplace.

On Wednesday, Democratic pundit Hilary Rosen said Ann Romney, a stay-at-home mom of five, “never worked a day in her life.” Republicans seized on the comment as an opportunity to gain momentum with middle-class woman, a key swing demographic.

“I happen to believe all moms are working moms,” Romney said while introducing his wife to the crowd in the cavernous Edward Jones Dome.

Ann Romney stressed the importance of supporting her husband and criticized the view that women are a “special interest group.”

“There is only part of that phrase that is correct: Women are special,” she said.

In his turn at the podium, Romney barely spoke of firearms in a 25-minute speech, which focused on the general theme of freedom from what Romney described as the burdens of big government, bureaucracy and regulations.

“If we continue down this path, we’ll spend our lives filling out forms,” Romney said. “Freedom is the victim of unbounded government appetite.”

The first mention of Romney’s name from the podium elicited no crowd reaction, and the audience only politely applauded after Romney was introduced. But the crowd seemed to warm to him during his attacks on President Barack Obama’s record, and he received sustained applause when he finished.

Romney mentioned the word “gun” only once during his address, and, according to a prepared copy, made only one mention of the Second Amendment. That may have reflected a reluctance on Romney’s part to delve into his record on firearms or credentials as an outdoorsman, which has generated criticism in the past.

While running against Democratic icon Ted Kennedy in 1994, Romney supported the Brady Bill, which instituted background checks on gun purchases, and a federal assault weapons ban. Later, during his first campaign for president, Romney said he had been a hunter “pretty much all my life.” It was later revealed that, at the time, he had been hunting only twice.

Friday’s candidate forum attracted only about 5,500 to the Dome — meaning the other 55,000 or so convention-goers were elsewhere.

Still, the event was a showcase for Republicans making their way on — or off — the national stage. Santorum appeared and broke the news that his young daughter Bella, afflicted with a rare genetic disorder, recently became a lifetime NRA member.

“And I hope it’s a long life,” Santorum said.

Santorum did not mention Romney directly in his speech, but advised Republicans that November is not the time to be picky.

“I know there will always be complaints about, ‘Well, I don’t like this candidate or that candidate,’” Santorum said. “We’ve got to win in this general election.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, still clinging to his presidential aspirations, made no mention of either his current or former competition.

Friday’s speakers also included Republicans Govs. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Rick Perry of Texas and Scott Walker of Wisconsin, who won the NRA’s highest honor for legislative achievement.

“We’re with you Scott!” someone from the crowd shouted at Walker, who is facing a recall vote at home.

Holding their convention in St. Louis for the second time since 2007, members of the NRA brass were blistering in their criticism of Obama. The group has committed to go “all in” to defeat him.

“When the sun goes down on Election Day, Barack Obama will have us to thank for his defeat,” said Wayne LaPierre, the group’s longtime executive vice president.

LaPierre, like the rest of Friday’s speakers, made no mention of the NRA’s support of “Stand Your Ground” laws, which some have linked to the death of Florida teenager Travyon Martin.

In an interview earlier in the week, LaPierre deferred to an adage from the group’s iconic former president when asked about the incident.

“Charlton Heston used to say, ‘Sometimes silence is the right thing to do,’” LaPierre said. “And that really is the case here.”

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