Romney Talks Freedom At NRA Conference

He can't really call himself a big-time hunter, but Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney went to the annual National Rifle Association meeting loaded for bear. His wasn't a speech about guns, however. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on Romney's first speech since Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer. After a long, turbulent primary season, Mitt Romney is now fully in general election mode. With Rick Santorum out of the race, Romney is trying to clarify the differences between himself and President Obama. He's also trying to nail down his support from the Republican base. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports from St. Louis on Romney's speech yesterday, to the annual convention of the National Rifle Association.

ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: This was Romney's first major speech to a conservative group since Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential race earlier in the week, and although this was a speech to the National Rifle Association, it was not a speech about guns.

MITT ROMNEY: This organization is sometimes called a single-issue group, and that is high praise when the single issue you're fighting for is freedom.

SHAPIRO: Freedom. Romney used the word more than a dozen times in this speech. He said he wants to increase liberty by shrinking the government, and he accused President Obama of doing the opposite.

ROMNEY: If we continue along this path, we'll spend our lives filling out forms and complying with excessive regulations and pleading with political appointees for waivers and subsidies and permission.

President Obama often says he has eliminated unnecessary regulations. In a way, both men are telling the truth. President Obama has done away with lots of regulations, but the health care law and Wall Street reforms included a lot of new regulations too. Romney said as president, he would reverse course.

Instead of expanding the government, I'm going to shrink it. Instead of raising taxes, I'm going to cut them.

SHAPIRO: Romney had been speaking for 17 minutes before he first mentioned guns. Even then, he did not focus on gun control laws. That's partly because President Obama has not pushed any gun control laws. Legislatively, the NRA has been on a winning streak. There has been no major federal legislation limiting guns, and states have more permissive laws than they've had in decades. So Romney focused instead on the impact that President Obama's judges and other appointees could have on gun owners.

ROMNEY: Our freedoms would be in the hands of an Obama court, not just for four years, but for the next 40, and we must not let that happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

SHAPIRO: The audience in the football stadium applauded, but it seemed as much out of politeness as genuine enthusiasm. When Newt Gingrich took the stage after Romney, the crowd jumps to its feet cheering. One man shouted: Go Newt. Another yelled: Take it to Tampa, urging him to stay in the face through the Republican convention. As NRA member Julie Molnar of Dexter, Michigan explained, Romney is not exactly a natural fit here.

JULIE MOLNAR: I do have doubts. He does seem to flip-flop a little bit. You know, I'm little worried about his stand on guns and on abortion.

SHAPIRO: Over the years Romney has fumbled talking about his experience with guns. He bought a lifetime NRA membership just before he started running for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Before that, as Massachusetts governor, he had distanced himself from the NRA. Still, nearly everyone here says they'll support Romney. Jim West of Atlanta, Illinois says even a former governor of Massachusetts is better than President Obama.

JIM WEST: Well, he's tried to infringe on, you know, every core belief that I think we have as Americans.

SHAPIRO: This convention takes place in the middle of a national debate about guns. The Trayvon Martin shooting in Florida has brought new scrutiny to stand your ground laws. Folks here generally said the shooting is a tragedy, but they want to see more such laws. Terese Appenhouse is a retired nurse here in St. Louis.

TERESE APPENHOUSE: I think if I when I was single was threatened, I would like to be able to say I could pull my gun and shoot and not have to go to court to prove my point.

SHAPIRO: The Romney campaign says this will be the first of several speeches intended to draw a distinction between President Obama and Governor Romney. For this crowd though, the distinction is already abundantly clear. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, St. Louis.

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