By Erik Schelzig, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The parade of potential Republican presidential candidates speaking at the National Rifle Association’s annual convention isn’t one to make waves with the powerful gun-rights group. The contenders are sitting pretty in NRA ratings of their positions on gun issues, with scores ranging from A to A-minus.
The speakers get 10 minutes each on Friday to preach to the choir on their pro-gun bona fides.
“This is the ultimate choir,” said Chip Saltsman, who ran the 2008 presidential campaign of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, among speakers at the event. “Any time you get 70,000 pro-Second Amendment people in one place, it’s a good opportunity for anybody running on the Republican side.”
Indeed tens of thousands typically come for the convention and the activities surrounding it. Among 2016 GOP prospects expecting a friendly reception: Sen. Ted Cruz and former Gov. Rick Perry of Texas; former Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida; Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal; Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker; former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania; Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina; and neurosurgeon Ben Carson.
Among those not coming: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who’s had a checkered relationship with the gun-rights lobby. Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence canceled appearances.
Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, who launched his presidential campaign Tuesday, has a top rating from the NRA and was scheduled to be campaigning in Iowa.
Christie began his political career running in support of a semi-automatic weapons ban and received a C rating from the NRA when he ran for re-election in 2013. That year, the governor clashed with the group when he blasted its ad accusing President Barack Obama of hypocrisy in opposing armed security guards in schools. Christie called the ad's invocation of the president's daughters "reprehensible."
But Christie more recently drew praise from firearm rights advocates for his 2013 veto of a New Jersey ban on military-style, .50-caliber semi-automatic rifles, after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. And last year he rejected gun control legislation that would have further reduced the maximum size of ammunition magazines in the state.
Rubio, Santorum and Jindal are speaking to their second annual NRA convention in a row; Walker and Cruz sent video messages last year.
"They all bring unique life experiences, and they've all supported the Second Amendment," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Barker said of the lineup. "This is an event that is a celebration of American values."
Bush did not attend last year's NRA meeting, though he has attended conferences in the past and as governor approved legislation supported by the group. In 2005, he signed the measure allowing people to use deadly force when threatened in public places. The law received attention after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. But Bush has also supported instant background checks for gun-show purchases of firearms, an unpopular position with the NRA.
Opposing groups plan a rally near the NRA event Saturday to press for more gun safety laws.