WASHINGTON — The fate of gun control proposals in Congress this year may depend on who is more potent: Michael R. Bloomberg the billionaire or Michael R. Bloomberg the boogeyman.
With signs that momentum for stiffer gun laws has begun to flag on Capitol Hill, the White House and gun control proponents are increasingly turning to the mogul mayor of New York to carry the fight into key congressional districts. He has bankrolled a high-profile campaign to counter the political might of the National Rifle Assn. His latest volley: a blitz of TV ads in 13 states urging lawmakers to approve expanded background check requirements.
But as the emerging voice for gun restrictions, it's not clear whether Bloomberg will help or hurt. Many gun rights advocates believe he may be their perfect foil. They have ridiculed his effort as the latest excess from a "nanny in chief" who has forced chain restaurants in New York to post calorie counts, and who has waged fierce crusades against smoking, trans fats, salt and sugary beverages.
The White House has no qualms about Bloomberg's role. Vice President Joe Biden has met with him twice in the last month, and President Obama offered impassioned support at the White House on Thursday for a "national day of action" called by Mayors Against Illegal Guns, a coalition that Bloomberg co-chairs.
To mark the day, the group sponsored nearly 140 events in 29 states, from a petition drive in Pleasant Hill, Calif., to a candlelight vigil in Raleigh, N.C. It also launched a TV ad in Connecticut featuring grieving parents of some of the 20 first-graders who were shot to death Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown.
The tragedy sparked the current push for gun control, but more than 100 days later no bill has passed either house in Congress. And changes considered possible are far less ambitious than advocates initially had hoped. Lawmakers almost certainly won't approve new bans on assault weapons or high-capacity ammunition clips.
Bloomberg thus has focused on winning support for universal background checks and stricter gun trafficking laws.
But any new limits will require support from Democrats and Republicans in conservative states with mostly rural voters — constituencies that may be suspicious of Bloomberg's vast fortune, ambiguous politics (he's an independent), social liberalism and eat-your-vegetables style.
Early feedback suggests Bloomberg's pitch doesn't play well everywhere.
"I don't take gun advice from the Mayor of NYC. I listen to Arkansans," Sen. Mark Pryor, an Arkansas Democrat facing a tough reelection fight in 2014, wrote this week on Twitter.
Another red-state Democrat, Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, was equally dismissive. "Frankly, there are far better uses for Mayor Bloomberg's [money] than buying ads attacking a way of life he clearly does not understand."
"It's not just about guns; it's about government overreach, and Bloomberg epitomizes that," said a Democratic strategist from a Western state, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.
The new TV ads call for background checks for nearly all gun buyers. The spots feature a flannel-clad man, a shotgun in his lap, praising responsible gun ownership from the back of a pickup truck.
The $12-million ad buy, which is running during the two-week congressional recess, targets lawmakers in Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
"The public overwhelmingly in those states support background checks on all sales," said Bloomberg spokesman Marc La Vorgna. "If anything, the ads are going to give cover to those who vote for it because the bill is so popular."
The group claimed one quick success. Sen. Joe Donnelly, a first-term Democrat from Indiana, told a business round table in Fort Wayne on Tuesday that he was "supportive of background checks."
Bloomberg, who will leave office next year, does not appear in the TV spot. Other ads produced by the mayor's group have featured law enforcement officers, retired military officials, sports stars and victims of gun violence.
But Bloomberg has not been hiding. Last fall, his "super PAC" spent more than $3 million to help defeat Rep. Joe Baca, an eight-term pro-gun Democrat facing a primary challenge in a newly drawn San Bernardino district. It was more than Baca and the winner, Gloria Negrete McLeod, spent together.
Bloomberg's super PAC, Independence USA, spent an additional $2.2 million for anti-gun ads in a special congressional primary in Chicago last month, vaulting that race to national prominence.
In response, the NRA has showcased Bloomberg as its opponent. He popped up in the NRA's first post-Newtown ad, a pugnacious spot assailing public figures who rely on armed security while opposing posting armed guards in all schools.
Americans "don't want him in their restaurants; they don't want him in their homes," NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press." "They don't want him telling them what food to eat. They sure don't want him telling them what self-defense firearms to own."
"The mayor has made himself an issue," said NRA spokesman Andrew Arulanandam. "There's no way he can run away from that. He's made himself the sole benefactor of this crusade against the 2nd Amendment. He has also made himself the primary intimidator of senators by launching this multimillion-dollar campaign."
Former Rep. Earl Pomeroy, a North Dakota Democrat who tangled with the NRA when he voted for the now-expired 1994 assault weapons ban, said the group was following a familiar playbook.
"The LaPierre argument is a classic straw-man approach: Shift the topic, portray the other side in an unflattering light, and talk about them instead of talking about the issue," said Pomeroy, who lost his seat in 2010.
Bloomberg's allies say the benefit of his advocacy — and his deep pockets — outweighs any potential backlash.
"The risk would be allowing [the] NRA to have the field to themselves, because we've seen what the result of that is," said La Vorgna, Bloomberg's spokesman.