Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

My Gazette-Mail column this week deals with an unfortunate byproduct of the political silly season — the ever-growing number of candidates eager to earn the sportsman vote:

As Election Day 2010 grows ever nearer, candidates far and wide are taking up arms in the name of political expedience.

It has become a cliché.

The latest politico to show up with a firearm in his hands is West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who just this week released a television ad in which he strolls serenely through the woods holding a scoped hunting rifle. As he walks along, Manchin turns, fires and blows a neat hole in the center of the federal cap-and-trade bill. The ad’s apparent dual message: I’m a hunter (or at least a shooter) and I’m distancing myself from President Obama’s environmental platform.

Well, at least Manchin used a hunting rifle. Carl Paladino, the current Republican nominee for governor of New York, chose a semi-automatic assault-style rifle for a recent photo op.

As I sit shaking my head at the video of Manchin and the photos of Paladino – with both candidates so obviously pandering to pro-gun voters – I couldn’t help but think back on other examples of politicians’ attempts to garner the shooter/sportsman vote.

In the spirit of this column’s theme, I offer them in bullet-point format:

  • During the 2004 campaign, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry traveled to Ohio for a much-publicized goose hunt. The patrician U.S. Senator from Massachusetts, renowned for his formal and stilted speech, went into a sporting goods store and actually asked – in his best Massachusetts interpretation of what he’d expect a plebian goose hunter to say – “Now where can I get me a huntin’ license?”

No photographers were allowed along on the hunt, but Kerry came walking proudly out of the hunting area with a dead goose in hand. The Republican Party apparently wasn’t sold on Kerry’s goose-hunting prowess. They later produced an ad of a fancy French poodle in a Kerry For President sweater, with ad copy that read, “That dog don’t hunt.”

  • During the 2008 campaign, Republicans distributed the now-famous photo of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin posing with a caribou carcass. Palin is a bona fide hunter, but the photo saddled her with the “Caribou Barbie” nickname that has stuck with her ever since. Since then, Palin has conducted her own photo ops in which she, like Paladino, was photographed shooting military-style assault rifles.

  • Former West Virginia Governor Bob Wise was an enthusiastic but not terribly skilled hunter. On one hunt, he killed a small buck and posed for a photo. Unfortunately, the plaid “Elmer Fudd” hat he wore opened him up to far more ridicule than his success as a deer hunter might have earned in respect.

To his credit, Wise did later earn his sporting stripes when he went to a local range to sight in his deer rifle. No photographers were present, but soon afterward Wise showed up with his eyebrow bandaged. He’d misjudged the eye relief of his rifle’s scope and suffered a cut when the scope banged into his forehead.

  • The most egregious West Virginia example came from former Gov. Gaston Caperton. By all accounts, Caperton’s most adventurous forays into the outdoors came when he walked from the Governor’s Mansion to his limousine. Yet he, in a mawkish attempt to curry favor among sportsmen, posed for a campaign-brochure photo wearing an appointee’s obviously empty fishing vest and holding a borrowed spinning rod upside-down in his hands. Voters weren’t fooled.

Hint to candidates: If you want to appeal to sportsmen or to gun owners, go hunting or fishing or skeet shooting or target-practicing sometime other than during the final few weeks of your campaign.

But if you do, make sure to keep your muzzle pointed in the right direction and remember to obey all the local licensing laws.

Right, Dick Cheney?