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Democrats from rural areas face pressure from pro-gun constituents

Democratic senators from mostly rural areas in the West and South must walk a fine line between party loyalty and constituents' wishes when it comes to gun control legislation. 

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Gun control is a top-agenda item for many Democrats, and they'll need all the votes they can to push changes.

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Baucus knows, though, that a gun control vote "opens the door for whoever challenges him, because Montanans do not want the federal government restricting guns. That is clear as day," said Republican state Rep. Scott Reichner, who was Mitt Romney's campaign chairman in Montana, a state the Republican presidential candidate won easily.

"It would be a monumental mistake on his part" to support federal gun control legislation, Reichner said.

Gun rights carry sway in Montana. The state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks says Montana "boasts more hunters per capita than any other state in the nation." State lawmakers have been discussing measures to expand gun rights even after recent mass shootings at the Newtown elementary school, a movie theater in Aurora, California, and elsewhere. And a pro-gun group, the Montana Shooting Sports Association, has set up a website that is updated with Baucus' public statements on gun policy.

Other Democratic senators that Republicans are watching closely include Mark Begich of Alaska, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tim Johnson of South Dakota, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Mark Pryor of Arkansas.

Democrats control the Senate, but if Republicans pick off these six seats they could take the chamber.

Pryor already has said he won't support an assault weapons ban, and the measure is unlikely to clear the Senate. Gun activists still worry that other restrictions they oppose are in the works.

"I don't think the assault rifle ban, the semi-auto ban, has been the real objective," said Gary Marbut of the Montana Shooting Sports Association. "I think that is where the rubber meets the road, federal gun registration."

The gun rights crowd considers mandatory registration as an unconstitutional overreach of federal authority and the close attention paid to all discussions on the topic show how carefully Baucus and others must tread.

Baucus would appear to be a heavy favorite for re-election. He's the third most senior US senator, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee that lets him prioritize many Montana projects, and a consummate dealmaker who routinely collects endorsements from Republican-allied groups like the US Chamber of Commerce. And he has worked hard over the years to become the only Senate Democrat with an A-plus rating from the National Rifle Association, the influential gun-rights lobbying group.

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