ST. LOUIS _ Mitt Romney drew a warm reception from the National Rifle Association on Friday as he attacked President Barack Obama for "employing every imaginable ruse and ploy" to restrict gun rights, which Romney pledged not to do if elected in November.
Although gun control groups have complained that Obama has done little to support their cause, Romney took a page from the NRA leadership, which has been saying that the president is waiting for a second term to crack down on firearms. He warned that Obama would "remake" the Supreme Court in a second term, threatening constitutional freedoms.
"In a second term, he would be unrestrained by the demands of re-election," Romney told a crowd estimated at 6,000 in the cavernous Edward Jones Dome. "As he told the Russian president last month when he thought no one else was listening, after a re-election he'll have a lot more, quote, 'flexibility' to do what he wants. I'm not exactly sure what he meant by that, but looking at his first three years, I have a very good idea."
Referring specifically to the right to bear arms, Romney said: "If we are going to safeguard our Second Amendment, it is time to elect a president who will defend the rights President Obama ignores or minimizes. I will."
Romney's speech came at the NRA's Leadership Forum, which always draws top conservative speakers. Also expected to speak Friday were former Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry, as well as as panoply of other Republican stars, including House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, Sens. Chuck Grassley and Roy Blunt, and Rep. Darrell Issa.
Most of the other speakers could claim a friendlier history with the NRA than Romney, who supported strict gun control measures as governor and Massachusetts and once said he didn't "line up" with the gun rights group. But the NRA leadership has thrown its weight behind Romney, whom it sees as preferable to Obama, and Romney received several standing ovations during his speech.
Although Obama has not been responsible for any notable gun control measures, the organization has been sharply critical of some of his appointments, especially that of Eric Holder as attorney general.
Before Romney spoke, the NRA's legislative director, Chris Cox, showed a video clip that he said depicted a Holder speech from 1995. In it, the future attorney general spoke about the need to "really brainwash people to think about guns in a vastly different way."
"So let's state this in very clear terms," Cox said. "President Obama needs to fire Eric Holder, and in November, we need to fire the president."
Even before Romney's speech, the Obama campaign hit back with a statement attacking the presumptive GOP nominee, along with a hefty file of news clippings intended to show that he had a checkered history on gun rights.
"The president's record makes clear the he supports and respects the second amendment, and we'll fight back against any attempts to mislead voters," said campaign press secretary Ben LaBolt. "Mitt Romney is going to have difficulty explaining why he quadrupled fees on gun owners in Massachusetts then lied about being a lifelong hunter in an act of shameless pandering. That varmint won't hunt."
Outside the convention hall, a half-dozen or so soggy union-affiliated demonstrators stood in the rain holding signs that said: "Romney: 100 percent out of touch."
"We're basically here to expose Romney as a flip-flopper with the NRA," said Ed McNees, president of UAW Local 282 in St. Louis. "In '94, he was for the Brady bill and against assault weapons ... and now he's a newly found supporter of the NRA."
With McNees was Steve Johnson, a local Teamsters organizer, who said Romney "doesn't look like anybody who hangs out at any of the places I might hunt." Leaders of the UAW and the Teamsters have pledged full support to Obama in the 2012 campaign, although both McNees and Johnson insisted that they were there as gun enthusiasts, not Obama supporters.