Half an hour before the doors opened for a National Rifle Assn. get-out-the-vote rally here last week, Rich Hauxwell was standing in a line of more than 1,000 men and women that already stretched back to the parking lot.
Bearded and burly, Hauxwell looked like most of those milling around him except for one thing: a black satin jacket that identified him as an executive of Local 87 of the United Dairy and Bakery Workers Union in Saginaw. Hauxwell's union is backing Vice President Al Gore in the presidential election, but he had come to support Texas Gov. George W. Bush, even though on most issues he doesn't think much of the Republican.
"The gun issue is the issue, definitely," Hauxwell said. "If Gore was elected there would be no 2nd Amendment, cut and dried."
One night later, lifetime NRA member Robert Cromwell was cheering Gore at a Democratic rally in Flint. "Gun rights mean a lot to me," said Cromwell, who works for General Motors and belongs to the United Auto Workers union. "But Gore has a lot of other things going for him: The economy is the main thing. Social Security. Medicare. I considered voting for Bush on the gun issue, but I couldn't do that."
In their conflicted loyalties, Hauxwell and Cromwell are at the front lines of a shadow war that could tip the balance in the states that likely will decide the election. Across the industrial heartland--in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Wisconsin and Ohio--the most powerful political organizations on the ground tend to be the NRA and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations.
In these big-shouldered states, where factory workers still bend metal during the week and tote hunting rifles into the woods on weekends, each group is feverishly laboring to mobilize its members--the NRA for Bush, the AFL-CIO for Gore.
To a striking degree, the AFL-CIO and the NRA are competing not only for the same type of voters--mostly white blue-collar men--but often literally for the same people: socially conservative union members. In labor's own polling, about 40% of union members in states such as Pennsylvania, Missouri and Michigan identify themselves as sympathetic to the NRA.
With Bush and Gore so closely matched in these critical states, the NRA and the AFL-CIO are clawing for every one of those voters--and scratching against each other more directly than ever before. "We are going to take them on for the hearts and minds of our members," promises Mark Gaffney, the president of the AFL-CIO in Michigan.
To which NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre replies, in effect: Bring it on. The NRA, he promises, will compete "for every blue-collar, hard-working freedom-loving worker in the heartland of America."
Few issues in this year's campaign have played out in a more unexpected way than gun control. It was supposed to be a strong card for Gore--who has backed new gun control measures, including background checks for purchases at gun shows and photo-licensing for handgun purchasers--but it's proved much more complex.
Though polls show majority support for most of the gun control measures Gore is offering, surveys often find pluralities agreeing with the NRA and Bush that tougher enforcement of existing law is more important than passing new measures. That helps explain why Bush, despite his opposition to ostensibly popular new gun control measures, generally runs even or ahead of Gore when voters are asked who can best handle the gun issue.
Against that backdrop, Gore appears to have lost confidence in his gun control agenda. In his second debate with Bush, Gore never mentioned his centerpiece proposal--the call for licensing new handgun owners--until Bush criticized it; in the third debate, Gore redirected a question about gun control into a discussion of shrinking government so fast that viewers might have been wondering if he had a gun at his back.
"If Gore could have mumbled through it," LaPierre said, gloating, "he would have."
The politics of these industrial battleground states explains much of Gore's reticence. His campaign has felt secure in states such as California, New York and New Jersey, where gun control unambiguously works for Gore. But in states such as Michigan and Wisconsin, where hunting is a tradition, the issue is at best a wash for Gore--and in some places a clear negative.
"The gun issue helps Gore nationwide," said political scientist Robert J. Spitzer, author of "The Politics of Gun Control." "But it doesn't help him in the electoral college."
And it's in these states at the fulcrum of the election that the NRA and the AFL-CIO are concentrating their efforts. Measured by sheer organizational heft, this competition is a mismatch. The NRA claims 4.1 million members nationwide; the AFL-CIO counts more than 13 million, which doesn't even include the 2.5 million teachers in the National Education Assn. The NRA said it will spend $12 million to $15 million on the election; organized labor is bound to spend many times that.
For its grass-roots mobilization, the NRA relies on volunteer coordinators organized by congressional districts. The unions back their volunteer efforts with a spine of paid staffers, like Todd Cook, a Service Employees International Union aide supervising a computerized calling center that's contacting 700 to 900 Michigan union members an hour from a big purple trailer beached in the parking lot of the state AFL-CIO headquarters in Lansing.
Yet the imbalance isn't as great as it appears, because the NRA has proved effective over the years at influencing sympathetic voters beyond its membership. In the most recent Los Angeles Times Poll, Bush ran about a dozen percentage points better among white men and white women who own guns than those who don't.
That gives the NRA a much larger universe to work with beyond its own membership. Here in Michigan, for instance, the NRA counts just fewer than 200,000 members, compared with about 975,000 active and retired members for the AFL-CIO. But 1 million people in Michigan hold hunting licenses, and the NRA is in the process of contacting all of them--as well as residents who hold permits to carry concealed weapons, subscribers to hunting magazines and owners of pickups.
That particular bit of demographic targeting was amply validated at the NRA rally in Flint last week: The parking lot outside was jammed with muddy pickups. Inside, flannel shirts outnumbered flannel suits by a good 20 to 1. Eventually, so many NRA supporters turned out (at least 5,000) that the group, which had booked itself into a hall in a hockey arena, had to commandeer the hockey rink for the overflow crowd and shuttle its speakers from one room to the other.
At the rally, and at an earlier gathering outside Lansing, LaPierre and NRA President Charlton Heston repeatedly appealed to union members to cross their leadership and support Bush. "Remember only freedom," Heston insisted at one point, "not what some shop steward . . . tells you."
These NRA rallies--which the group also held last week in Pennsylvania and Virginia--are only the most visible component of a multi-front siege of union workers. Last month, the NRA's magazine included a lengthy article that argued that, while gun control was a signal divide between Bush and Gore, "there is no longer much meaningful difference between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to policies that affect union workers."
Late last week, the group also inserted into an hourlong infomercial it runs on cable stations an extended segment of interviews with union members who are backing Bush because of his views on guns. And here in Michigan, NRA activists have been leafleting auto plants with fliers that charge, in bold black letters: "Al Gore wants to ban guns in America."
Union officials remain cautiously optimistic that they can minimize defection on guns, though in private union polling, the issue is a clear divide. In Michigan, a recent union survey found that Gore leads Bush by about a 6-1 margin among union members who say they are unsympathetic to the NRA; the 40% of union members sympathetic to the gun group split about evenly between the rivals.
But Steve Rosenthal, the AFL-CIO's national political director, said that most of those drawn to Bush on the gun issue are among the one-fourth of union members who usually vote Republican anyway. Interviews with more than a dozen union members at the NRA rallies supported that judgment: Almost all expressed conservative views across the board, particularly concerning abortion rights.
Yet the race is close enough here--and in such demographically similar states as Wisconsin and Pennsylvania--that union officials worry that even a slight increase in defection to Bush around guns could sink Gore. As they try to hold wavering members, the unions generally are emphasizing bread-and-butter issues such as workplace safety and Social Security, which they believe trump gun control for most members.
But union activists such as John Swiantek, a representative from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, finds himself debating the gun question almost every day as he distributes pro-Gore leaflets at union plants around Michigan. "Most people don't understand the issue," he laments. "When people give the flier back to us, they say it's because, 'I don't want a man who's going to take my gun.' "
Hearing such rumbles, the national AFL-CIO late last week decided the threat from the NRA was substantial enough that it distributed to key states such as Ohio, Michigan and Pennsylvania a flier declaring: "Al Gore doesn't want to take away your gun, but George Bush does want to take away your union." Meanwhile, here in Michigan, the state AFL-CIO has concluded that it needs to send its own mailing to union members refuting the NRA's charge that a Gore victory would undermine the 2nd Amendment.
"We may be doing all this work to try to change less than 50,000 guys' minds [who might be pulled to Bush just on the gun issue]," said Gaffney, the Michigan labor president. "But what's a percentage point of the vote in Michigan? Thirty thousand voters. Can we afford to ignore it? Not this . . . year."
Times staff writer James Gerstenzang contributed to this story.
Bush Looks Across Lines
The Republican seeks support from "open-minded Democrats" and paints his opponent as a D.C. insider wedded to big budgets. A14
Gore Asks for Voter Passion
The Democrat calls on voters to join his Social Security cause and urges community leaders to encourage turnout at the polls. A18