NASHVILLE, Tennessee -- Republican presidential hopefuls gathered in Nashville on Friday for the National Rifle Association’s annual meeting, a forum to sing the praises of gun rights — and bash Hillary Clinton.
News of Clinton’s impending Sunday announcement hung over the event’s early speeches, especially a lengthy polemic against the former secretary of state by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre that touched on everything from Whitewater to her private email account. At one point, he warned the crowd of a “permanent darkness of deceit and despair forced upon the American people to endure” if Clinton won.
“I vow on this day the NRA will stand shoulder to shoulder with you and good, honest decent Americans and we will stand and fight with everything we’ve got and in 2016, by God, we will elect the next great president of the United States of America and it will not be Hillary Rodham Clinton!” LaPierre told a roaring crowd.
The annual meeting drew a crowd of over 70,000 people per NRA officials and its attendees closely align with the GOP’s strongest demographics: conservative, white, and male, with plenty of senior citizens and veterans. Virtually the entire GOP field has rock solid credentials with the NRA, which is considered one of the most influential political advocacy groups in America.
None of the Republicans vying for the right to face off against the Democratic front-runner went nearly as far as LaPierre in bashing Clinton, but there were digs sprinkled throughout the day.
“It's the liberal, progressive world view of Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton and Eric Holder, and all of the other people who want to take guns out of the hands of the good guys, and the hands of law abiding citizens,” former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said in his speech. “But the Second Amendment is where the Obama administration has run into a wall and that wall is the Kevlar covered wall of the NRA.”
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Bush’s top rival in polls of Republican voters, mocked Clinton’s “reset button” with Russia and tied her domestic politics to Obama as well. “We got a president, people like Hillary Clinton, who seem to think that you measure success in government by how many people are dependent on the government,” Walker said. “I think we should measure success by the opposite: By how many people are no longer dependent on the government.”
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Like LaPierre, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal reached back to the '90s for some vintage Clinton-bashing over her 1998 claim of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” devoted to undermining then-President Bill Clinton. “She was wrong about conspiracy part, but she was not wrong to say it is vast,” Jindal said. “And we are going to show her how vast it is next year!”
For the most part, the candidates stuck to the theme of the event and played up their Second Amendment credentials to the crowd. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham both offered up nostalgic tales of their first childhood guns while other candidates recounted policy fights in Congress or their home states.
Bush, who faces intense skepticism from conservative activists at events like the NRA meeting over his immigration and education positions, offered a greatest hits of his gun legislation as governor. They included bills expanding concealed carry permits and the state’s famous (or infamous, depending on your view) “Stand Your Ground” law, which provided greater legal protection for gun owners to use lethal force against a perceived thereat.
“I've been in the trenches with you and when I was governor, we were passing laws and creating protections for gun owners that set the bar for other states to follow,” Bush said. “I will match my record against anyone else's when it comes to the support and defense of the Second Amendment.”
Texas Sen. Ted Cruz recounted how he helped lead a successful filibuster against White House-backed legislation to tighten background checks for private gun sales in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. “The weeks and months that followed Sandy Hook, if you guys were sitting in the Senate Republican lunch, you’d have jumped out the window, because the sentiment there was ‘This is unstoppable, this is a freight train, this can’t be stopped, let’s get out of the way,’” he said.
The fight over that gun bill could become relevant in the 2016 primary debate. In 1998, Bush backed a statewide law to expand background checks to gun shows in Florida during his campaign for governor. At the time even NRA leaders were willing to accept the idea, but both the organization and the GOP have since moved further to the right on the issue in the Obama era.
One notable 2016 candidate absent from the event was Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who is feuding with the NRA over what he labeled their “petty” decision not to invite him to the event. Paul believes he was left off the list over his ties to the National Association for Gun Rights, a rival conservative Second Amendment group, but NRA officials said several speakers were not invited initially but were given slots after they requested them.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, whose relationship with the NRA has been strained at times, also did not attend.