US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell takes stage with rifle

PUBLISHED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 9:54pm
UPDATED : Friday, 07 March, 2014, 9:54pm

US Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell tried to bring some firepower to his tough re-election battle, waving a rifle as he strode onto the stage at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

McConnell hoisted the flint-lock muzzle-loading rifle over his head on Thursday at the gathering of conservative leaders and Republican Party activists.

He then handed it to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a fellow Republican who will retire when his term ends in January 2015 due to health reasons.

"This is for you, for your distinguished service," said McConnell, 72, earning the biggest applause of his brief speech at the conference.

For long-serving McConnell, wielding the rifle amounted to a nod to gun-rights conservatives at a time when he has come under fire on two fronts as he seeks another term in the November 4 elections.

A spokesman for McConnell said later that the gun was a gift from the National Rifle Association, and McConnell was "the presenter, not the provider, of the firearm".

Although he is a vocal and persistent critic of President Barack Obama and his health care overhaul in particular, McConnell has faced criticism from conservatives in his party for cutting fiscal deals with Democrats.

He is being challenged in the May 20 Republican primary by Louisville businessman Matt Bevin, who is backed by the conservative "tea party" movement.

Recent Kentucky polls have indicated that McConnell is well ahead of Bevin. The polls also indicate McConnell is running virtually even with the Democratic nominee in the November election, Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Grimes.