The Hunting Card

By Kellyn Brown

Neither John McCain nor Barack Obama is a big hunter. Despite Halloween’s rapid approach, it appears the blaze orange vests will remain closeted. There are no plans by candidates to slog through the woods, rifles in hands, with photographers creeping a few dozen yards behind. And that’s a relief.

In 2004, when Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry used a goose-hunting trip in Springfield Township, Ohio, to lure independent voters, he looked downright phony. The press corp watched as he clipped one bird and had someone else carry it out of the field (Kerry, apparently, was exhausted). It was his way of fighting back against his low rating from the National Rifle Association: an F (the same grade awarded to this year’s Democratic nominee, Barack Obama). The faux-rustic photo op didn’t work.

In a neighboring state, President Bush howled, “He can run – he can even run in camo – but he cannot hide.” The crowd in Hershey, Penn., responded with laughter and cheers. Bush had effectively used the opening to portray Kerry as a fraud. Remember when the president had confidence?

In contrast to four years ago, when a battle waged over who could look more comfortable among rural voters, Obama and McCain have relied on their records on such hot-button issues as firearms and conservation. And, despite both campaigns being panned as less than honest, what’s thankfully absent this election cycle – at the top of the ticket, anyway – is that all-American tradition of playing dress-up for votes.

The hunting vote is vital and eagerly sought after in this election. In battleground states across the country the presidential candidates, through surrogates, are making their respective cases. For Obama, his supporters tout his support for conservation and habitat restoration measures. For McCain, it’s all about guns and the fact that he has a better rating (C) than Obama from the NRA.

Close to home, the country’s largest and most influential gun lobby has been McCain’s biggest ally. When Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer suggested Obama wouldn’t take anyone’s guns away, the NRA promptly responded, “To somehow suggest (Obama) is supportive of gun owners because he says so when he is in Montana running for president is absurd.”

But the Obama campaign, which is still entrenched in this state while slipping in the polls here, has responded with the Sportsmen for Obama team. It accuses both the NRA and the McCain campaign of attempting to “hoodwink” Montana hunters. Yet the posturing, so far, has been limited to verbal barbs – with no awkward forays into the field wearing stiff garments still dangling their “Cabela’s” tags.

In a recent interview with Field and Stream, Obama admitted his only hunting experience was spearfishing in Hawaii as a young man. And McCain told the same magazine that he doesn’t even own a gun, although he’s an avid fisherman. If either entered a blind now, it would look as phony as former presidential candidate Mitt Romney bragging about his hunting prowess. It was soon revealed that half of Romney’s two hunts were limited to shooting rabbits. It remains unclear whether he has the skills to field dress such massive game.

The vice presidential picks, in contrast to their running mates, have tried to appeal to hunters and gun owners. Photos of Sarah Palin moose hunting have been a hit. And Joe Biden, defending Obama on guns, said, “I guarantee you, Barack Obama ain’t taking my shotguns. So don’t buy that malarkey. They’re going to start peddling that to you. I’ve got two and if he tries to fool with my Beretta, he’s got a problem.”

They carry on a recent VP tradition started by Dick Cheney, who famously shot his hunting partner in the face. Still, I doubt Palin or Biden heads into the field between now and the election.

The gun vote matters, especially in Montana where more residents per capita hunt than any other state. But those hunters can also spot fraud, and playing the hunting card, at this point, would do more harm than good.