WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani, who as New York mayor backed gun control and sued firearms manufacturers, sought a middle ground Friday with skeptical gun-rights activists.
But his remarks left many at the National Rifle Association's "Celebration of American Values" conference uneasy, especially after he struggled to answer whether he still thought that gun makers should be held liable for criminals' actions.
Several other Republican presidential hopefuls also addressed the group, most with stronger gun right records than the former mayor, and directed digs at him and at one another.
Arizona Sen. John McCain chided "big-city mayors (who) decided it was more important to blame the manufacturers of a legal product than it was to control crime in their own cities."
McCain also went after Mitt Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, saying that candidates are wrong when they think "if you show your bona fides by hunting ducks or varmints or quail, it makes up for support for gun control."
Romney embarrassed himself earlier this year by claiming he'd been a lifelong hunter, only to have his campaign acknowledge that he'd been on just two hunting trips. Romney later said he'd hunted "small varmints" more than twice.
"I will say the same things I've been saying since 1994," actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson told the group, contrasting his strong NRA rating with the more nuanced positions of Giuliani and Romney.
Romney, speaking via videotape, said a McCain campaign-finance bill had undercut the NRA's political advocacy muscle and that he'd work to repeal it.
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee called lawsuits such as the one Giuliani supported against gun manufacturers "ridiculous."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who signed an expansion of gun owners' rights to carry concealed weapons into state law, was the only Democratic contender who participated Friday. He drew applause when he said via videotape, "Your voice needs to be heard, and when I'm president, it will be."
While conference attendees were eager to hear from everyone, Giuliani's remarks were perhaps the most awaited, because of his front-runner status in national polls and his record as mayor.
In the mid-1990s, Giuliani compared the NRA to extremist groups and said its members had gone "way overboard" in stands against limits on so-called assault weapons. The NRA claims 4 million members.
During a question-and-answer period Friday, Giuliani defended his suits against gun manufacturers and distributors in 2000, saying he was using all the tools in his arsenal as mayor to try to reduce crime.
However, he said, the lawsuit had since "gone in a direction I don't agree with." He also said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks had to some degree refocused his attention on 2nd Amendment rights. Faced with the choice today over whether to sue gun makers, he said equivocally: "That is not necessarily what's needed now."
Giuliani said he was a strong supporter of law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms, that he favored enforcing existing laws over passing new ones and that he didn't favor longer waiting periods for gun purchases.
He challenged the audience of several hundred to look at his broader law-enforcement record, both as a federal prosecutor and a mayor credited with making New York safer.
Finally, he implied that he'd have more appeal in a general election than other Republican contenders would.
Some in the audience weren't sold.
"He's still sitting on the fence," said Robert Lennon, a 55-year-old computer specialist from North Plainfield, N.J. "He's basically an anti-gun candidate but he's realizing he's unelectable that way."
Janet Marx, a retired nurse from Alexandria, Va., said, "I still have the feeling he's leaving his options open" on lawsuits and gun control.
"I think Giuliani would be so good on terrorism," she said. "There's a lot of things I like about Giuliani."
But she added, "I wouldn't vote for someone who isn't a strong gun supporter."