ST. LOUIS — Mitt Romney's speech to the National Rifle Association is a high-profile chance for the Republican presidential candidate to woo conservatives who have viewed him warily for years.
The address Friday in St. Louis also comes at a moment of heightened national concern about gun use because of the explosive Florida case in which a neighborhood watch volunteer fatally shot an unarmed teenager. The NRA strongly backed Florida's "stand your ground" law, which is at the heart of the unfolding legal matter.
It won't be the first time Romney has had to walk a careful line between appealing to conservatives, who form his party's base, and trying not to alarm independents, who will be crucial in the fall campaign against President Barack Obama.
Few conservative groups have a bigger name or broader network than the NRA. Thousands of members are filling St. Louis hotels and sidewalks this weekend for an annual convention that offers "over seven acres of guns, gear and outfitters."
The NRA is so vital to Republican politicians that Rick Santorum, who suspended his presidential candidacy Tuesday, is keeping his appointment to speak just after Romney on Friday. Others scheduled to speak at the "leadership forum" include presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.
Romney has an uneasy relationship with gun owners. "I don't line up with the NRA," he said when he tried to oust Sen. Edward M. Kennedy in Massachusetts in 1994.
When Romney ran successfully for Massachusetts governor in 2002, the NRA gave his Democratic opponent a higher rating on gun-rights issues but made no endorsement.
Massachusetts quadrupled its gun-licensing fee while Romney was governor. He signed a law that made permanent a ban on assault-type weapons, although it was coupled with measures backed by gun-rights groups, such as the creation of an appeals board for people seeking to restore their gun licenses.
As he was considering his first presidential run in 2006, Romney signed up for a lifetime NRA membership. He calls himself a strong supporter of gun ownership rights.
Romney drew snickers in 2008 by claiming he sometimes hunts "small varmints." He showed more humility and humor last month in Alabama, where he said he hoped to go hunting with a friend who "can actually show me which end of the rifle to point."
Although the Trayvon Martin case in Florida might stir new debate, gun issues have sharply faded in recent presidential elections. Obama rarely broaches the topic. GOP candidate forums often elicit no questions on the subject.
The NRA speech is Romney's only scheduled public appearance until Monday. The focus on gun rights will mark a sharp turn from the heavy emphasis on female voters and women's issues in the past several days.
The NRA's website urges families at the St. Louis convention to "spend the day exploring the products from every major firearm company in the country, book the hunt of a lifetime in our exclusive outfitter section, and view priceless collections of firearms in our gun collector area."
Romney plans to spend Sunday raising money in Naples and West Palm Beach, Fla.