Barack Obama intensified his campaign to appeal to voters on the life-and-death issues of the American heartland yesterday by stepping away from his past support for gun control.
In the latest in a series of policy reversals for the Democratic presidential candidate, Obama came out in support of yesterday's supreme court decision overturning a gun ban in the city of Washington that had been a model for fighting urban crime.
He had previously supported the Washington ban, the strictest in the US.
It was the second time in 24 hours that Obama had shifted towards a more conservative position. On Wednesday, he took issue with the supreme court for striking down the death penalty for cases of child rape that do not involve murder.
In yesterday's decision, judges struck down Washington's 32-year-old gun ban by a five-to-four margin, saying it was incompatible with the second amendment of the constitution. "Whatever the reason, handguns are the most popular weapon chosen by Americans for self-defence in the home, and a complete prohibition of their use is invalid," the conservative Justice Antonin Scalia said. However, the judges defended the need for firearm bans in schools and public buildings.
Immediately after the ruling Obama and the Republican candidate, John McCain, both sought to exploit one of the most emotive political issues. McCain tried to revive charges that Obama was out of step with smalltown values. Obama ran into controversy last April for telling a fundraiser that Americans in small towns clung to guns and religion out of bitterness.
"Unlike the elitist view that believes Americans cling to guns out of bitterness, today's ruling recognises that gun ownership is a fundamental right - sacred, just as the right to free speech and assembly," McCain said.
Obama, chastened by that controversy, tried to keep to a narrow line between hunters and gun enthusiasts and urban areas desperate to fight street crime. "Today's decision reinforces that if we act responsibly, we can both protect the constitutional right to bear arms and keep our communities and our children safe." His carefully phrased comments were seen as a sign of his shift towards the centre before November's election.
On Wednesday Obama, once a critic of the death penalty, opposed the decision to strike down Louisiana's death penalty for child rape not involving murder. "I think that the rape of a small child, six or eight years old, is a heinous crime and if a state makes a decision that under narrow, limited, well-defined circumstances the death penalty is at least potentially applicable, that that does not violate our constitution," he told a press conference.
The hard line was seen at variance with comments in his memoir that the death penalty was not a deterrent to crime. As an Illinois state senator he had opposed the death penalty for gang murders.
Earlier this week, Obama reversed his opposition to a bill to legalise the Bush administration's wiretapping programme. Last week, he reneged on a promise to uphold the public campaign finance system put in place after Watergate. And earlier this month, he was even more forceful than the Bush administration or the Israeli government in support of the Jewish state's territorial claims to Jerusalem.
"He ran to the left to get nominated, and he is running back to the centre in the general election," said Larry Sabato, a politics expert at the University of Virginia. "You can call it flipflopping, or you can call it readjusting, or you can call it determined to win."
© 2008 The Guardian