"People perceive the moral values question as broader than guns," the Democratic consultant said. "Democratic candidates have to appreciate that their party has been in a weaker position on values. They have to establish their personal credibility on the issue."
Still, Democratic gun-control supporters believe they can make headway on the issue. Vice President Al Gore has made gun control and opposition to the NRA a centerpiece in his White House campaign, hoping it will separate him in voters' minds from Republican candidate George W. Bush.
Bush, the Texas governor, signed a state law this month forbidding cities from suing gun manufacturers the way states, including Texas, sued cigarette makers. He also said he would have voted for an NRA-drafted gun measure -- supported by most Republicans and some Democrats -- that would have weakened current background checks of purchases from licensed dealers at gun shows by reducing the time limit on the checks from three days to 24 hours.
Former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, Gore's sole challenger for the Democratic nomination, is trying to score points with the party's liberal base by promoting more ambitious gun-control proposals, such as a national ban on Saturday night specials, registration and licensing of handguns, and a prohibition on gun dealerships in residential neighborhoods.
Congressional Democratic leaders are even more enthusiastic, seeing victory next year in defeat on Capitol Hill this year. As Republican leaders were pushing through the NRA-backed measure just after midnight June 18, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island led the chant, "Six seats, six seats," the number of Democrats need to regain control of the House.
The new willingness to stand up to the NRA comes in part from demographics. Rural and Southern House seats that would be vulnerable to pro-gun voters are largely Republican now. The new battleground is in the suburbs, where Republican women are increasingly supportive of gun control and increasingly politically active.
David Mermin, a Democratic consultant at Lake, Snell, Perry and Associates, said his polling in Pennsylvania showed such overwhelming support for gun control that he has advised all his candidates to embrace the issue.
"Soccer moms have one view on this issue. They're not divided," he said. "And it's becoming a much higher priority for them."
But the enthusiasm also stems from Bill Clinton's successful efforts to shift the Democratic Party rightward this decade. Democrats are not as vulnerable to the "soft-on-crime" charge as they once were. In last week's Lake-Goeas poll, 38 percent of voters said Republicans were more trustworthy on handling crime and drugs, while 30 percent said they trusted Democrats. By comparison, Democrats beat Republicans on issues of health care, protecting senior citizens and Social Security by 20 percentage points or more.
Moreover, Democrats have learned to frame the gun control issue in a way tailored to appeal to suburban swing voters, stressing values and the safety of children, while eschewing dramatic gun curbs. Democratic congressional aides said it was no accident that in their gun-control bills this month, they dropped the most stringent, and perhaps most effective measure proposed by the president: limiting handgun buyers to one purchase a month.
Roy Roemer, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, captures the new language of gun control when he focuses on trigger locks, background checks and the banning of high-capacity clips for semiautomatic weapons.
"I've got 18 grandchildren, 18," said Roemer, the former governor of Colorado. "Let me tell you, I don't want them living in a world that's more dangerous because of our foolishness."
Still, when the issue of gun control turns from platitudes to real votes, Democrats might still be in trouble. When Kennedy was asked which six Republican seats would go Democratic based on gun control, he demurred, speaking of gun control as just one more issue in the mix.
His GOP counterpart, National Republican Campaign Committee Chairman Thomas M. Davis III of Virginia, was not so coy. Not only has he identified six Democrats that he says will lose their seats over gun control, but his aides have found eight more that could be hurt dearly.