Could blaze orange turn key states red or blue?

Fishing on Gull Lake
A couple fishing on Gull Lake. Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama are both trying to reach out to hunters and anglers in their campaigns.
MPR Photo/Tim Post

(AP) - Forget spring, summer, fall and winter. In Minnesota, the seasons go by fishing, boating, hunting and snowmobiling.

Outdoors passions run so strong that last year lawmakers considered moving the fishing opener to spare anglers the dilemma of having to choose between hitting the lake and marking Mother's Day.

It explains why presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama are targeting "hook-and-bullet" voters -- a bloc expected to turn out in especially high numbers because of a state ballot question on natural resource financing.

Beyond Minnesota, the campaigns are mobilizing blaze-orange brigades in battleground states including Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. They're making their cases at game fairs, shooting ranges and hunting camps.

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Sarah Palin, vice presidential nominee
Sarah Palin, Republican vice presidential nominee, is helping to attract more outdoors people to the Republican ticket, because of her background as a hunter, angler, and gun rights supporter.

With a fresh poll showing a deadlocked race in Minnesota, McCain was bringing his Republican campaign back to the state Friday along with his new weapon -- moose-hunting running mate Sarah Palin. McCain's selection of the Alaska governor has fired up some outdoors enthusiasts.

"She's probably the most pro-hunting and pro-gun candidate that we've ever had," said dentist Don McMillan, a member of Minnesota's Sportsmen for McCain. "She hunts. She fishes. She snowmobiles. She's an outdoors person. Outdoors people can relate to someone like that."

Both candidates touched on their recreational backgrounds in interviews with Field & Stream magazine published Wednesday.

Obama said he spearfished as a child in Hawaii but hasn't gone hunting or fishing in Illinois. McCain said he fishes on his property in northern Arizona but doesn't own a gun.

In Minnesota, McCain and Palin were due to hold an airport rally in Anoka County and share the stage with Ron Schara, host of the popular weekly outdoors show, "Minnesota Bound."

Behind the scenes, the McCain campaign has built a presence at weekend gun shows, organized within snowmobile clubs and tailored phone banks to put pro-McCain sportsmen in touch with those who are undecided.

Nationally, McCain held a 36 percentage point lead over Obama among gun owners in an AP-Yahoo News poll conducted Sept. 5-15.

McCain is hoping to make inroads in northeastern Minnesota's St. Louis County, a place of towering pines and ample lakes where President Bush lost to Democrat John Kerry by 37,000 votes in 2004.

Earlier this week, Obama's campaign used the same region for its rollout of a sportsmen network, with a pledge to protect hunters' gun rights, expand and restore habitat for hunting and fishing, and enhance programs that teach youth about outdoors activities.

His campaign is working to repel a National Rifle Association push to portray Obama as an enemy of the Second Amendment and to get past the candidate's inartful statement during the primaries about the tendency of small-town Americans to "cling to guns or religion."

Radio ads that Obama is running in several key states feature former NFL player Ray Schoenke, who played for the Washington Redskins, telling listeners that "Barack Obama and John McCain will both make sure we can keep our guns."

In northern Minnesota, computer technician Michael Jarve said he'll go door-to-door if needed to get that message out, too.

"Tell me where Senator Obama says 'I want stricter controls on who can hunt and when,' or 'I want to ban shotguns and rifles,'" said Jarve, a member of Obama's Minnesota sportsmen chapter. "Where has he said that? He hasn't."

Jarve, 27, has been a hunter since accompanying his father on a partridge hunt when he was 3. He concedes that the gun vote has traditionally been a Republican stronghold, but thinks the economy and Iraq war will ultimately drive voters' decisions this year.

Nationally, McCain held a 36 percentage point lead over Obama among gun owners in an AP-Yahoo News poll conducted Sept. 5-15.

Among those who don't own guns, Obama was up 45 percent to 41 percent, with a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Four in 10 gun owners polled said the Palin pick made them more likely to support the McCain ticket, a much higher rate than among those who don't have firearms.

One wildcard in Minnesota is a constitutional amendment that should draw more outdoors-minded voters to the polls. It would establish a huge pot of money dedicated for habitat restoration, water cleanup and heritage programs.

It has a catch that's causing discomfort among top Republicans -- the money would be generated by increasing the state sales tax.

Dan Hofrenning, a political scholar at St. Olaf College in Northfield, said there's no doubt that outdoors matters are serious business in the state. The big question, he said, is whether they'll trump other voter concerns.

"Minnesota is a state with 10,000 lakes and lots of forests and plenty of people who hunt and fish. Does it beat bread and butter issues like peace and prosperity? Probably not," he said. "But in a close election, you're looking for anything."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)