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US Republican Presidential Contenders Seek Support From Gun Lobby

Republican presidential contenders appealed for support Friday from an influential conservative group in Washington, the National Rifle Association. But as National correspondent Jim Malone reports, some uninvited protesters made sure the candidates would not forget about the war in Iraq.

The National Rifle Association is one of the most powerful lobbying groups in Washington, boasting an active membership of more than four million members who are not shy about urging Congress to defend the rights of gun owners.

Gun enthusiasts and hunters tend to vote Republican, and with than in mind, several Republican presidential hopefuls made their way to an NRA conference in Washington to make a pitch for support.

"So, it is not just a matter of promises made, as far as I am concerned, it is a matter of commitments that have been kept," said former Senator Fred Thompson of Tennessee.

Thompson said he has a strong record of defending the right to bear arms, a contrast with some of the other Republican contenders who have had their differences with the gun lobby over the years.

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani has angered gun owners in the past with his support of some gun control measures. But Giuliani based his pitch for support on polls that show he would run a strong race against Senator Hillary Clinton if she is the Democratic Party's presidential nominee next year.

"You have to look at the overall candidate and then, I think, depending on the views that you have, you have to figure out who is electable, who can win," he said. "Because if we make a mistake about that, this country is going to go very much in the direction that I think you and I disagree with."

Democrats have made little headway in recent years in winning over gun rights supporters at election time.

The only Democratic presidential contender who addressed the NRA conference was New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who appeared in a videotaped message.

"I have a long record as a congressman and governor as a defender of the rights of citizens to own guns," he said. "You may have heard that I not only supported New Mexico's concealed [weapons] carry law, I have a permit myself."

At one point, anti-war protesters made their presence known when they interrupted remarks on Iraq by another Republican presidential hopeful, Senator John McCain of Arizona.

"We cannot choose to lose in Iraq, and I will not choose to lose," McCain said.

"We want the troops home and no war with Iran," said the protesters.

"We will not choose to lose. We will not choose to lose this conflict," he responded.

McCain is the most vocal Republican candidate in support of President Bush's military surge strategy in Iraq and he opposes Democratic attempts to set a timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

McCain also has a history of conflict with the NRA gun lobby. Gun advocates say his sponsorship of a campaign finance reform law has unfairly limited the amount of money they can donate to politicians who support their cause.

A new poll in California shows Giuliani leading the Republican race in that state with 22 percent support, with Thompson, McCain and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney virtually tied for second place at about 16 percent each. The California poll generally reflects the trend seen in national surveys