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NRA endorses gun champion Bill Bunting's opponent

Most politicos in Tampa Bay think one thing when they hear about Pasco County's Bill Bunting.

Guns.

That's why the latest endorsement in Bunting's re-election campaign for GOP state committeeman is so puzzling. The National Rifle Association is backing Bunting's opponent, former Pasco County Commissioner Steve Simon.

"We have found that Mr. Simon's opponent has a habit of endorsing candidates that are not the candidates endorsed by the NRA," said Marion Hammer, the group's lobbyist in Tallahassee.

Hammer declined to elaborate, saying the group runs positive campaigns about the people it supports.

Normally, the race for the unpaid state party position is less dramatic, with activists waging low-key battles for the right to attend state party meetings and help recruit candidates. But this year, several powerful figures have weighed in on the race, with Bunting critics making a push to oust him after a decade of leading Pasco's Republican Party.

Bunting's gun credibility is hard to deny. He's been the Second Amendment chairman for the Republican Party of Florida since 2006. He teaches concealed carry certification classes. He even has a life-sized tattoo of a .45-caliber pistol near his left shoulder blade. Some local Republicans complain he is actually too focused on gun issues.

All that leads Bunting to conclude that the endorsement is personal.

"I supported Marco Rubio, while she (Hammer) supported Charlie Crist. And I won," Bunting said, referring to the 2010 campaign for U.S. Senate. "And she doesn't like to lose a battle."

There's another race this year where Bunting and Hammer come down on different sides.

The NRA supports Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, as he seeks a return to the Florida House. He earned an A+ rating, while his District 36 opponent, Jim Mathieu, earned a B- rating. Bunting supports Mathieu, the vice chairman of the Pasco Republican Party.

Fasano, who has no love lost for Bunting and also supports Simon, said he was "a bit surprised" the group didn't endorse Bunting.

"I think Bill tries to use the Charlie Crist/Marco Rubio campaign as much as he can to get points. Not this time around. He lost a very powerful endorsement, a very important endorsement," Fasano said.

Still, the news was turning heads Monday afternoon. It even caused Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, to question whether the endorsement is fake.

"There is no one I know in the whole Tampa Bay area who has been more identified with the Second Amendment than Bill Bunting," Latvala said. "That's just bizarre. That is just a petty personal vendetta of some sort."

As for Simon? He took the high road, touting his own staunch support of gun rights: "I am extremely pleased and proud to have the endorsement."

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6236.

NRA endorses gun champion Bill Bunting's opponent 07/30/12 [Last modified: Monday, July 30, 2012 9:35pm]
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