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ST. LOUIS (Reuters) - Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney vowed to gun owners on Friday he would reverse what he called the restrictive gun policies of President Barack Obama, in an appeal to conservatives as he heads toward sealing the Republican nomination.
Romney, who has fumbled when talking about his experience with guns, took up the cause of sportsmen and other gun owners in an address before the annual convention of the National Rifle Association in St. Louis.
It was Romney's first speech to a major conservative group since his closest rival for the Republican nomination, Rick Santorum, suspended his campaign this week. That cleared Romney's path to take on Obama, a Democrat, in the November 6 general election.
The former Massachusetts governor needs to win over conservatives, many of whom are gun owners, but they have shown limited enthusiasm for him.
"We need a president who will stand up for the rights of hunters, sportsmen, and those seeking to protect their homes and their families," Romney said. "President Obama has not. I will."
Romney's NRA appearance comes during a nationwide debate over gun rights and race after the Florida shooting of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by neighborhood crime watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
A Romney campaign official said decisions surrounding "Stand Your Ground" laws - which allow people to use deadly force when they believe their lives are in danger - should be left to individual states. Florida's version of the law has come under attack in the Trayvon Martin case.
Romney dismissed the Obama administration's handling of gun rights, saying the White House operates outside of the original vision for American government, but he gave few details.
"This administration's attack on freedom extends even to rights explicitly guaranteed by our constitution," Romney said. "The right to bear arms is so plainly stated, so unambiguous, that liberals have a hard time challenging it directly. Instead, they've been employing every imaginable ploy to restrict it."
Romney attacked Obama's approach to the judiciary, environment, and economy. Presented with an opportunity to shore up support among gun owners, Romney largely avoided the topic. Of the 2,600 words in Romney's prepared speech, provided by the campaign, fewer than 200 were devoted specifically to gun rights or gun issues.
He received a short standing ovation from the audience, but many gun owners said Romney was not their first choice as Republican nominee.
"Romney is too liberal for me but I will vote for anyone other than Barack Obama," said attendee Hank Marshall, a retired bus driver.
The NRA's chief lobbyist, Chris Cox, ran head-on into his members' skepticism of Romney.
"Are we going to be in a position where we have to support someone who is not as pro-gun as we'd like?" an audience member at a seminar on political organizing asked Cox.
Cox responded that the primary is not officially over.
"We have more than one friend" in the Republican race, Cox said. "Part of our job is to educate, to activate supporters, but also these politicians, and this has been an ongoing process," he said.
"Would Mitt Romney be better than Barack Obama in the White House? No question at all," Cox continued. He said the NRA will continue to deliberate on a possible endorsement, taking into accounts factors such as Romney's running mate.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday showed that 68 percent, or two out of three respondents, had a favorable opinion of the NRA.
Eighty-two percent of Republicans saw the gun lobbying group in a positive light, as well as 55 percent of Democrats, findings that run counter to the perception of Democrats as anti-NRA.
But the poll also showed strong support for some gun controls including background checks, limiting the sale of automatic weapons and keeping guns out of churches, stores and workplaces.
Romney has stumbled when talking up his hunting prowess. At a debate in South Carolina in January, he said he last went hunting for moose in Montana. Then he quickly corrected himself, saying elk were, in fact, the target.
In 2007, Romney drew laughs when he said he was a "small varmint" hunter.
"I'm not a big-game hunter. I've always been a rodent and rabbit hunter. Small varmints, if you will," he said at the time.
During his unsuccessful 2008 run for the nomination, Romney said he did not walk in lockstep with the NRA.
Rival Republican candidate Newt Gingrich, who is trailing Romney badly in the polls, also addressed the convention.
"I believe the NRA has been too timid," Gingrich said. He said as president he would submit to the United Nations a treaty extending the right to bear arms to everyone on the planet.
"The Second Amendment is an amendment for all mankind," he said.
Romney's speech prompted a bit of gun control at the gun convention. Signs posted outside the hall where he was speaking said: "Concealed Firearms or Weapons are Prohibited on the Premises."
Additional reporting by David Ingram in St. Louis and Lily Kuo in Washington; writing by Samuel P. Jacobs; editing by Mohammad Zargham