WASHINGTON -- Republican presidential candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani, who as New York mayor backed gun control and sued firearms manufacturers, sought a middle ground yesterday with skeptical gun-rights activists.
His remarks at the National Rifle Association's "Celebration of American Values" conference left many members uneasy, especially after Giuliani struggled to answer questions about whether he still thinks gun-makers should be held liable for criminals' actions.
Several other Republican presidential hopefuls also addressed the group, most of them with stronger gun-rights records than Giuliani.
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 that "if you show your bona fides by hunting ducks or varmints or quail, it makes up for support for gun control."
Romney said this year that he had been a lifelong hunter, but his campaign acknowledged that he had been on just two hunting trips. Romney later said he had 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 that the campaign-finance bill sponsored by McCain had undercut the NRA's political advocacy strength and that he would 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 law, was the only Democratic contender who participated yesterday. He drew applause when he said via videotape, "Your voice needs to be heard, and when I'm president, it will be."
Giuliani's remarks at the conference were perhaps the most awaited because of his front-runner status in national polls and his record as mayor.
In the mid-1990s, Giuliani likened the NRA to extremist groups and said its members had gone "way overboard" in opposing limits on so-called assault weapons.
During a question-and-answer period, Giuliani defended his suits against gun manufacturers and distributors in 2000, saying he was using his power as mayor to try to reduce crime.
The lawsuit has since "gone in a direction I don't agree with," he said.
Giuliani said he strongly supports allowing law-abiding people to bear arms, favors enforcing laws over passing new ones and opposes longer waiting periods for gun purchases.
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."