Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani presented himself to members of the the nation's largest gun owners' advocacy group, the National Rifle Association, a group he once likened to "extremists," Friday.
Leaving behind his former position calling for stricter gun control, the former mayor of New York attempted to reassure an estimated 500 lifetime members of the NRA that he supports the Second Amendment's right to bear arms.
"I'm very happy to be here in front of the NRA, because there are a lot of things that you and I have in common," Giuliani said. "There are probably a few things we disagree about, but there are many more things that we have in common."
In a 20-minute address, the former mayor attempted to distance himself from his previous position supporting the Brady bill and a ban on assault weapons, and an effort to hold gun manufacturers liable in court for gun crimes.
In 2000, as mayor of New York City, Giuliani went after gun manufacturers, filing a lawsuit against companies like Smith & Wesson, Glock and Colt to hold them accountable for violent crimes involving firearms.
And in a 1995 interview with PBS' Charlie Rose, the former mayor likened the NRA members to "extremists," calling their defense of assault weapons "a terrible, terrible mistake."
Asked whether he still believed that gun companies should be held liable for gun crimes, Giuliani distanced himself, saying, "I think that lawsuit has gone in a direction that I probably don't agree with at this point."
Remade as a 2008 Republican presidential hopeful, Giuliani made a states' rights argument before the NRA crowd, and pledged to appoint "strict constructionist" judges to the Supreme Court who would uphold the Constitution. suggesting that restrictive gun laws suitable for larger metropolises may not be necessary in rural communities.
Touting his record on reducing crime as mayor, Giuliani positioned himself as a crime fighter pledging to strengthen the enforcement of laws.
"You never get a candidate you agree with 100 percent -- I'm not sure I even agree with myself 100 percent," he said. "You have to figure out who's electable, who can win."
A testament to the power and influence of the NRA, all the leading Republican presidential hopefuls made their '08 case — either in person or via video — to the invite-only crowd at the Capital Hilton in Washington, D.C., in a forum billed as a discussion of "Second Amendment Rights as a Core American Value."
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson -- the only Democratic presidential hopeful invited to the forum -- is addressing the group in a video message.
At the gathering today, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., delivered a swipe at Giuliani — who once likened the NRA to extremists.
"For more than two decades, I've opposed the efforts of the anti-gun crowd to ban guns, ban ammunition, ban magazines and paint-gun owners as some kind of fringe group, dangerous in 'modern' America. Some even call you 'extremists,'" McCain said today, referencing a 1995 comment made by Giuliani.
"My friends, gun owners are not extremists. You are the core of modern America. You are pretty used to hearing aspirants for public office come before you and pledge fealty to the cause of the Second Amendment," McCain said.
"You know you need to dig into a politician's record to find out where they really stand. You know some will change their position or have little record for you to judge. That is not the case with me," he said.
In another swipe at Giuliani, McCain reminded the NRA crowd that he'd voted for a congressional bill that banned lawsuits against gun manufacturers that would hold them accountable for gun-related crimes.
"This was a particularly devious effort to use lawsuits to bankrupt our great gun manufacturers," McCain said. "A number of big-city mayors decided it was more important to blame the manufacturers of a legal product than it was to control crime in their own cities. Fortunately, we are able to protect manufacturers from these frivolous lawsuits."
McCain delivered another swipe at Romney, who, in an effort to brandish his gun credentials, once said he hunted "small varmints."
"There is the hunting myth," McCain said, "if you show your bona fides by hunting ducks or varmints or quail, it makes up for support for gun control. This myth overlooks a fundamental truth: The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it is about freedom."
Romney has also been accused of changing his position on gun control, buying his first NRA membership last August.
During the time he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney pledged to uphold the state's gun control laws. He has previously supported a ban on some assault weapons and federal waiting periods before gun purchases.
More recently, Romney told a man wearing a NRA cap in New Hampshire, "I purchased a gun when I was a young man. I've been a hunter pretty much all my life."
It was later reported that Romney had only been on two hunting trips, prompting the candidate to explain, "I'm by no means a big game hunter. I'm more Jed Clampett than Teddy Roosevelt," he said at the time.
Romney delivered his NRA message via video.
"I support the Second Amendment as one of the most basic and fundamental rights of every American. It's essential to our functioning as a free society, as are all the liberties enumerated in the Bill of Rights," Romney said on the video. "I'd be proud to have your support again as I campaign for president."
Romney took a swipe of his own at McCain's support for campaign finance reform. The NRA has long railed against McCain's attempts to reform for campaign finance laws believing it encroaches on their ability to financially support the pro-gun rights candidates they endorse.
"As president ... I'll ask Congress to repeal the McCain-Feingold law, which sought to impose restrictions on the First Amendment rights of groups like the NRA to advocate for issues we care about. Some parts have already been declared unconstitutional. We ought to get rid of the entire bill," Romney said.
During the 2008 election campaign, Romney has been accused of flip-flopping on gun rights. During the time he was governor of Massachusetts, Romney pledged to uphold the state's gun control laws. He has previously supported a ban on some assault weapons and federal waiting periods before gun purchases.
In an effort to boost Romney's gun rights credentials, the campaign announced early Friday that a former NRA director of general operations, Craig Sandler, endorsed the governor's '08 bid.
Republican candidate Fred Thompson, a former Republican senator from Tennessee, received a warm welcome from the NRA crowd. He told the group his relationship with the National Rifle Association goes "way back" and touted recent campaign stops to a gun store and his visit to a gun show Saturday in Lakeland, Fla. Brandishing his gun rights credentials, Thompson said he believes gun shows are a "part of Americana" and said if elected, he would support the Bush administration's position on the Second Amendment.
In a dig to Romney and Giuliani, Thompson said his philosophy on the Second Amendment to bear arms "does not depend on his geography."
Thompson, who was introduced by his campaign biopic video, also took questions submitted by conference attendees, stating he believed gun shows were a "part of Americana" and that if elected, he would support the current administration's position of the Second Amendment allowing and protecting the rights of individuals to keep and bear arms.
While the influential gun-rights group has yet to endorse any particular candidate, Chris Cox, chief lobbyist for the NRA, said it is evaluating a candidate's past, present and possible future record on gun rights.
"We're a force in American politics because of our members," Cox explained. "They're very savvy about evaluating candidates and their positions. They're in every precinct and at every local primary and will have a major impact on any election."
Cox acknowledged that many of the NRA's 4 million members are skeptical of some of the leading GOP candidates — former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, among them — who have been accused of shifting their positions on gun rights.
With reporting by ABC News' Jan Simmonds, Bret Hovell, Matt Stuart and Christine Byun.