Pittsburgh They're out there stalking the misty woodlands in their orange vests, toting shotguns and trying to make a seductive, rattling sound like a sexed-up gobbler. Forget the World Series or Super Bowl. In these western Pennsylvania hills, those are trifles compared to opening of turkey-hunting season.
But the guys in orange vests have another target in mind Al Gore, caricatured as an elitist liberal who'd rip away their guns.
That's the scare message of the National Rifle Assn., which blankets TV airwaves: "Vote Freedom First! Don't risk having President Gore take away your gun."
Sometimes you'd think Charlton Heston, the gun-lobby Moses, is running against Gore instead of George W. Bush. Heston brings Pennsylvania rallies to their feet when he intones, "They'll take this gun from my cold, dead hand!"
Think of Heston and Gore grappling over a musket in a scene from "The Patriot." If Pennsylvania is the key state of the Bush vs. Gore showdown, the War over Guns could be oddly pivotal.
In a way, it's a battle for the Angry Blue-Collar White Guy vote which pits two powerhouse forces, the National Rifle Assn. against the AFL-CIO unions.
In another dynamic, the struggle matches gun-loving hunters of western and central Pennsylvania against Philadelphia and suburbs, where guns explode in crime.
It's political lore ever since gun owners knocked popular Joe Clark from his U.S. Senate seat in 1968 that you don't anger Pennsylvania hunters. No wonder Gore and Bush treat the issue gingerly as a cocked, loaded .38. At two events here last weekend Bush before 2,000 enthused GOP faithful and Gore before 10,000 less-enthused spectators at the Carnegie Mellon campus I didn't hear either candidate mention guns. Nada. In one TV debate, though, Gore carefully said, "None of my proposals would affect hunters or sportsmen or anyone owning rifles." A Gore aide acknowledged, "That line was tailored for Pennsylvania and other states where the NRA's banging us."
The rifle lobby early on noticed half the guys at their rallies wore union jackets. So it stirred mischief among hard hats torn between labor loyalty and love of shooting irons. "I'll vote against Gore because he'd take away my Second Amendment rights to own a weapon," said Al Prentis, a postal worker. "I don't care what my union says."
Then I encountered Jeff Costea, card-carrying NRA member, from Somerset, Pa., who said, "I don't believe the scare tactics about Gore taking away guns. I like Gore's ideas on education."
But the NRA's $25 million "Vote Freedom First" blitz damages Gore among union folks, already suspicious of his stand for NAFTA and his environmental screeds.
The unions fight back with a pithy argument I heard from Steve Rosenthal, AFL-CIO political director: "Al Gore doesn't want to take your guns away but George W. Bush wants to take away your union."
The NRA's Bill Powers scoffs, "Gore's a hypocrite. He was pro-gun while a Tennessee congressman. As vice president, he never saw an anti-gun law he didn't love."
In urban areas such as Philadelphia, where guns are part of the nightly news bang-bang, voters are reminded that Bush is pals with the rifle lobby. There's a video clip of NRA Vice President Kayne Robinson bragging, "If Bush wins, we'll have a president where we work out of their office."
But Gore, jittery about irritating rural Pennsylvania nimrods, won't openly appeal to crime-ridden big cities.
Asked on a Philadelpha TV station if he'd support the right of cities to sue gun manufacturers for costs of gun violence, Gore dodged, "That's up to local communities." Never mind that Al's DNC co-chairman, ex-Philly Mayor Ed Rendell, led the fight for suing gun makers.
Is there a difference between Bush and Gore on guns? You bet.
As veep, Gore, with Clinton, backed a waiting period for gun purchases and ban on some assault-style weapons. As president, he'd push photo licenses for new handgun buys, safety locks on handguns and full background checks for gun-show buyers.
Bush? Hey, in Texas, never mess with guns. Didn't Bush help pass the law allowing concealed weapons? He sharply limited Texas cities from suing gun manufacturers. Dubya's mantra: Get tougher on criminals.
In truth, it's ridiculous bombast that Gore would take away anybody's guns. Neither President Al nor President Dubya would change much in Washington not while the NRA terrifies Congress. But the War Over Guns rifle lobby vs. unions, western hunters vs. Philly suburbs could tilt Pennsylvania on Nov. 7. Gore's no Alpha male to Angry White Guys. Those turkey hunters in orange vests would be happy only if Charlton Heston won the White House. Then everybody would have to carry heat.
Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.