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Romney, Perry, Gingrich and Blunt lead parade of speakers at NRA convention here

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 10, 2012 - The National Rifle Association is expecting 65,000 gun-rights supporters to pack the America’s Center, beginning Thursday, for its national conventiondubbed a “Celebration of American Values.”

The four-day event is attracting a parade of conservative politicians, led by Republican presidential frontrunner Mitt Romney, as well as 550 vendors selling guns large and small, along with other weapons and hunting equipment.

Spokeswoman Stephanie Stamford said the St. Louis convention is among the NRA’s largest in years, and will feature “the latest and greatest in guns and gear.”

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is among Friday’s speakers at the leadership forum. Besides Romney, others include GOP rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, U.S. House Major Leader Eric Cantor and Govs. Bobby Jindal, R-La.; Scott Walker, R-Wisc., and Rick Perry, R-Tex.

UPDATE: It's unclear whether Santorum's plans will change, since he announced Tuesday that he's suspending his presidential campaign. End update

While the NRA has yet to endorse a presidential candidate, it has a clear goal for this November.

“We want to do all we can to make sure President (Barack) Obama is not re-elected,” said Stamford. “He has spent his entire (political) life being anti-gun.”

The Obama administration and Democratic allies have disputed that characterization, saying that the president actually has said little about guns since taking office in 2009. But NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre contends that Obama will become more aggressive on the issue if he’s re-elected.

The huge cadre of speakers exemplifies the NRA’s political clout, particularly among conservative Republicans. The association, said Stamford, “plays a large role in turning out the vote.”

And its focus isn’t just on the presidency. On local, state and regional levels, the spokeswoman said, “It’s always our goal to elect pro-gun candidates.”

The NRA last held its convention in St. Louis in 2007 and has come back because “St. Louis is a great America city,” the spokeswoman said. “Our members enjoy coming here.”

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.