This election season, traditional hot-button topics like abortion, illegal immigration and even the war in Iraq have taken a backseat to the turmoil in the stock market and the economic slowdown. But there is a group of passionate voters who are galvanized by guns ... and Sarah Palin.
Since her acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, Governor Palin has arguably garnered more media attention than any of the other three candidates in the race for the White House. From Tina Fey's "Saturday Night Live" skits mocking Palin's folksy persona to an Alaska state legislature corruption investigation focusing on Palin's "Troopergate" scandal, Palin has been pinned under the unwavering gaze of the media spotlight.
(Longtime republican Senator Ted Stevens' being found guilty on seven counts of failing to properly disclose political gifts isn't helping, either.)
Some voters see this as an unfair treatment of the candidate.
"I think they're afraid of her and I think that putting her down and belittling her has been their way of dealing with this," said Brenda Valentine, the "First Lady of Hunting."
Valentine, a hunter and television personality who hosts Bass Pro Shops' "Real Hunting" program and is frequently featured on its "King of Bucks" series strongly supports Palin, though she's careful to say her political views in no way represent those of the National Wild Turkey Federation, a non-profit organization for whom she also serves as spokeswoman.
When asked whether it was the media or the Democratic party initiating the attacks, Valentine asserted the Democratic party is the controlling force behind much of the mainstream media. She claimed bias and saw a nearly indistinguishable link between political parties and media outlets.
"Everyone but Fox Network has chopped her down and tried to make her look like this backwoods lady who's never been to town," said Valentine. "I think we have two of our main networks that are Democratic-funded. It's not just an idea that they're biased, it's a fact that they're biased."
Whether or not the mainstream media is inherently biased in its treatment of her, as a political celebrity in the current fractured political climate, Palin has ardent supporters and vicious detractors — and some of the most ardent and vicious fall on either side of the gun control issue.
"When they said she was a lifetime NRA member, I knew right then where I'd vote and where I'd send my money," Valentine said of Governor Palin.
Valentine distanced herself from extremists, calling herself a "simple country housewife," but expressed her concern that without gun rights, our country would be headed down a slippery slope toward a complete breakdown of the democratic system. As both a woman and a hunter, Palin's record on gun rights was the most important issue for Valentine.
"I wouldn't care if she were a three-legged dog," said Valentine. "I don't care what gender they are, what color they are, but I'm very interested in their history on voting for gun rights, and when I find out one has a history of opposing gun rights, then they're automatically not my choice."
In contrast to Valentine's views, Dave Lyon, president of the Alaksa Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Association, was skeptical of Palin presenting herself as a hunter and of her policies in general.
"I could go out and become a life member of the NRA today," he said. "You just send them a check. I think she manipulates hunters by claiming to be a big hunter. I don't think she spends a whole lot of time in the out-of-doors. I really think she just uses it as a political ploy."
While most indications support Palin's claim to a hunting background, Lyon went on to list his disagreements with the Palin administration's handling of wildlife issues, lamenting a lack of funding for Alaska's Fish and Game and for wilderness land in general. He said that as governor she focused on predator control rather than comprehensive management plans for all species, claiming she was in the pocket of wealthy special-interest groups and professional guides.
"She doesn't represent people who don't have a whole lot of money and just live here. She represents guides," said Lyon. "Our fish and game is the most horribly underfunded chapter of the state's government. You can't just kill things with pointy teeth and expect that it's going to make more things with flat teeth. It's not that simple."
Lyon isn't the only one who takes issue with Palin's environmental record. Environmental groups cite her statements and policy choices on a host of issues, from drilling in ANWR to opposing the listing of a subset of beluga whales on the endangered species list.
For these "single-issue gun nuts" as Peter Hamm, communications director of the Brady Center on Gun Violence put it, Sarah Palin, by and large, represents a bastion of support for the cause.
Hamm is a hunter himself and quickly qualified his use of the term, "I don't say 'gun nuts' as a pejorative term, it's what I call friends of mine who are avid hunters and gun collectors.
"I would say that [they] probably like Sarah Palin a lot more than they like Senator McCain," Hamm added, "the NRA used to call Senator McCain 'one of the premier flag-carriers for the enemies of the Second Amendment.'"
This point about Palin's popularity may be the only one on which the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the Brady Center agree.
"To cut to the chase ... Sarah Palin would be one of the most pro-gun, pro-hunting vice presidents in American history," said Chris Cox, executive director of NRA's Institute for Legislative Action.
While Cox talks about Palin's commitment to Second Amendment rights and her well-publicized background as a hunter, Hamm downplayed the effect that any candidate would have on hunter's rights.
"It doesn't matter who gets elected, we're still going to hunt," said Hamm. "I'm still going to go duck hunting."
Hamm cited the recent Supreme Court ruling on the Second Amendment in June, 2008, in the case of Heller v. the District of Columbia, in which the court partially struck down a ban on handguns in D.C., thereby upholding the plaintiff's right to bear arms.
Any ticket having a negative impact on hunters' rights, Hamm said, is "a crock that the gun industry has been trying to sell to the hook and bullet crowd in this country for 30 years, and in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision in June, I don't think that the hunters are buying it. No one's going to take away anybody's hunting rifles in this country."
The sentiment that guns are safe no matter who becomes president seems to be a popular one among voters who don't vote on the single issue of Second Amendment rights, despite Barack Obama's more nuanced approach to gun rights, endorsing an Illinois handgun ban and cosponsoring a bill that would have limited gun purchases to one per month.
Bill Jones, taxidermist and ower of Redneck Taxidermy and manager of Bill's Happy Hunting Grounds Hunting Club in Pennsylvania, asserts Obama is an "undercover Muslim," expresses equal disdain for both political parties and says he would have voted for Hillary Clinton.
"That's all just publicity-hype [crap]," Jones said. "Nobody's going to take our guns off us. That's not going to happen. There'd be civil war going on if that happened."