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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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But one wrong gun vote could energize his opposition.

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Though Baucus specifically rejected the assault rifle ban, he stopped short of mentioning expanded background checks by name. Baucus indicated he prefers the focus was elsewhere.

"Instead of focusing on new laws, Max believes the first step should be effectively enforcing the laws already on the books," Baucus spokeswoman Jennifer Donohue said Thursday.

The entire debate represents a potential replay of the most difficult fight of his career, when Baucus voted for the 1993 Brady Bill that established background checks and the original 1994 ban on assault rifles and high-capacity clips. The ban expired after 10 years and was not renewed during President George W. Bush's administration.

His 1994 votes led to the closest election in four decades of politics for Baucus, a narrow victory in a bitter campaign against Republican Denny Rehberg.

The other Democratic senators in rural states could find themselves in similar fights and have been cagey over the issue. Most have taken a wait-and-see approach.

The National Rifle Association last month launched an advertising campaign aimed squarely at this group, sending a strong message. The organization did not return a call seeking comment.

Democratic political operatives say the NRA could be overplaying its hand this time, arguing some sportsmen may be willing to listen to moderate proposals. Polls show strong support for expanding background checks to include not only sales by federally licensed gun dealers but also private sales between individuals, purchases at gun shows and online transactions.

A gun control group started by former US Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who was severely wounded in a January 2011 shooting massacre in her Tucson district, and her husband, former astronaut Mark Kelly, has begun airing pro-gun control television ads in some states.

Still, Baucus and his colleagues aren't likely to take risks and by next year's election, he and others could seek to turn the issue to their advantage by using a pro-gun stance to appeal to conservative and libertarian-minded voters.

"Why wouldn't he want to talk about guns?" said Montana State University political scientist David Parker. "Sen. Baucus is as about as middle of the road as they get in the United States Senate. What he doesn't want to do is have himself painted as a national Democrat or as an Obama Democrat."

Associated Press writer Matt Gouras in Helena, Montana, contributed to this report.

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