WASHINGTON -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's promise to the National Rifle Association that he will work to repeal the law banning assault weapons has created a rift among his supporters, and some associates say the senator realizes he made a major political mistake that could damage his presidential campaign.
The Kansas Republican apparently did not consult many members of his expansive circle of advisers before he made the vow in a letter to the NRA a month ago in which he referred to "the ill-conceived gun ban."
One of Mr. Dole's major contributors, calling the senator's letter to the NRA "just terrible," said: "Unfortunately, he always has some persons representing the extreme right around him and they get him in trouble. He tolerates them to try to get the nomination."
Another longtime Dole adviser who opposed the letter described reaction this way: "We all climbed up and down on him about it. Everybody gave him a bad time. He realized it was a big mistake.
"I don't know what drove him to do it," the adviser said. "He could have just let the thing come up naturally on the floor, let someone introduce an amendment, instead of taking the lead on repealing the ban."
Mr. Dole's decision to take an active role in the fight against the assault weapons ban, which prohibits the manufacture and sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic weapons, and the unhappiness his action provoked among many of his supporters reflect the conflict inherent in Mr. Dole's position as he seeks the GOP presidential nomination.
Mr. Dole's more moderate advisers point out that about 70 percent of those responding to public opinion polls favor the assault weapons ban.
Among Dole supporters said to be most upset about the letter are fund-raisers concerned that the issue may dry up potential sources of contributions to his presidential campaign.
Mr. Dole, campaigning in the Midwest, stood by his letter to the NRA. Through a spokesman, he reiterated his support for the rights of gun owners. But he did not comment on the rift among his supporters or their claims that he made a major political mistake.
"The senator thinks the letter speaks for itself," Nelson Warfield, Mr. Dole's campaign press spokesman, said.