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As NRA event begins, who's in and who's out?

As the NRA's annual event gets underway, nearly every Republican presidential candidate will be there -- except the handful who weren't invited.
Handguns are displayed in the Remington booth during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits on May 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty)
Handguns are displayed in the Remington booth during the 2013 NRA Annual Meeting and Exhibits on May 5, 2013 in Houston, Texas.
The National Rifle Association's annual conference kicks off today in Nashville, with an estimated 70,000 gun enthusiasts expected to attend. Given that this is the NRA's last major national gathering before the 2016 presidential race gets underway in earnest, attendees can expect a heavy dose of partisan GOP politics at the gathering.
Indeed, the guest list features a lengthy list of announced and unannounced Republican candidates: Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, Rick Perry, Marco Rubio, Rick Santorum, Donald Trump, and Scott Walker.
Mike Pence was expected to address the gathering, but he canceled yesterday after the death of a friend. Sarah Palin was also scheduled to appear, but withdrew without explanation.
In theory, these cancellations could make room for some of the other GOP candidates who were not initially included, but that apparently isn't going to happen. Chris Christie, for example, has moved quickly to the right on guns recently, but the National Rifle Association still does not see him as a reliable enough ally to the cause.
And what about Rand Paul? As Benjy Sarlin reported late yesterday, there's some behind-the-scenes drama between the group and the Republican senator.

Almost every Republican presidential hopeful will pay tribute to gun rights at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting on Friday, but one of the few missing candidates is taking shots at the organization instead. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), fresh off his presidential announcement on Monday, is complaining that he was left off the speakers' list despite boasting an "A" rating from the group.

As Paul sees it, he's been friendly with the National Association for Gun Rights -- a hyper-conservative rival to the NRA -- which he believes hurt the NRA's feelings and led to this intentional snub. Paul's campaign is so invested in the idea that it spent yesterday complaining about the snub, and sharing his theory, to news organizations over and over and over and over again.
It is true that the Kentucky senator has associated himself with the right-wing outfit, endorsing the group's bizarre conspiracy theories and helping it raise money. But did this lead the NRA to become, as Paul put it "petty"? The NRA denies it.

The NRA sees things differently. According to the group's spokeswoman, Jennifer Baker, Paul was not singled out for his NAGR ties but was one of several presidential hopefuls who didn't receive invitations due to the event's packed schedule. Unlike other scheduled speakers who didn't receive an invite, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, Dr. Ben Carson, and former Gov. Mike Huckabee, Paul did not push for a speaking slot after the initial snub. "It is true we did not issue them an invite initially, but we have worked with other people who did not initially receive an invite to include them in the program," Baker told msnbc. "Rand Paul did not reach out to us. At some point we would have reached capacity -- t's almost a 5 hour program and unfortunately you can't accommodate everyone -- but he did not come to us and ask to be included."

I'm not in a position to say which side of this argument is right, though the NRA's explanation certainly sounds compelling and it sounds as if the senator could have made the roster of speakers if his campaign had handled this better. That said, the larger question is why in the world Rand Paul thinks it's a good idea to pick a public fight with the NRA, one of the most influential organizations in Republican politics, so quickly after the difficult launch of his presidential bid.