McConnell hoisted the flint-lock muzzle-loading rifle over his
head at the gathering of conservative leaders and Republican Party
activists and handed it to Oklahoma Senator Tom Coburn, a fellow
Republican who has said he 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 CPAC.
For McConnell, who is the sixth-longest serving current U.S.
senator, 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 McConnell spokesman later said 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 Democratic President
Barack Obama and Obama's healthcare 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.
McConnell's speech at CPAC focused on "red meat" conservative issues
touted by other CPAC speakers, including jabs at the program known
as Obamacare and the president's handling of the economy.
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McConnell accused Obama and Democrats of being bent on increasing
government power through Obamacare, stiffer environmental
regulations and the Internal Revenue Service's scrutiny of
conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status.
"The president of the United States is treating our Constitution
worse than a placemat at Denny's," he said, referring to the family
Grimes, 35, responded to McConnell's brandishing of the rifle with a
Twitter post that chided him over his handling of the weapon.
"Someone tell @Team_Mitch that's not the way to hold a gun. KY women
do it better," she tweeted.
(Editing by David Lindsey, Andrew Hay and Diane Craft)
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