[cnn-photo-caption image= http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/09/14/art.deeds.gi.jpg caption="The National Rifle Association flips and endorses McDonnell over Deeds, pictured."]
WASHINGTON (CNN) - The National Rifle Association endorsed Republican Bob McDonnell in the Virginia governor's race on Monday - an about-face for the gun rights group, which backed Democrat Creigh Deeds over McDonnell when the two men last faced off in a statewide race four years ago.
Deeds, who had interviewed for the NRA endorsement along with McDonnell, quickly countered by announcing that he had earned the backing of the Virginia Firefighters Association, which represents roughly 6,500 paramedics and firefighters throughout the commonwealth.
But the NRA endorsement is likely the headline-grabber of the day, due to the state's evolving relationship with firearms and the NRA's change-of-heart about the candidate it once supported.
Deeds, a state Senator from rural Bath County and a longtime supporter of gun rights, won the NRA's backing in 2005 when the two men were running for Attorney General. McDonnell won that race by just 323 votes, the narrowest margin of victory ever in a Virginia statewide race.
Asked what had changed in the four years since his group endorsed Deeds, the NRA's chief lobbyist Chris Cox said Deeds is a different candidate than he was in 2005. He pointed to Deeds' decision to drop his opposition to so-called "gun show loophole," which permits vendors to sell firearms without background checks. Cox said Virginia gun owners were "shocked and disappointed" by the Deeds' transformation on the issue. Deeds has said he changed his mind on the loophole after the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech.
McDonnell told reporters he was "delighted" to have the NRA seal of approval, which he touted as a sign that his campaign is attracting voters in the commonwealth's rural areas.
Cox praised McDonnell for being one of 31 state attorneys general in 2008 to sign an amicus brief supporting the right to bear arms in the landmark District vs. Heller case. He said the NRA's 120,000 paid members in Virginia will go to bat for McDonnell in November.
Losing the support of the NRA could be a blessing in disguise for Deeds, who has struggled to excite voters in liberal northern Virginia, the populous electoral battleground where voters are less in tune with the hunting and fishing traditions cherished in other parts of the commonwealth.
Still, his campaign promised that Deeds remains "a committed supporter of the Second Amendment" and pointed to his 'A' rating from the NRA.
"While it appears that his work on closing the gun show loophole following the Virginia Tech tragedy may have lost him this endorsement, Creigh looks forward to working with the NRA as governor to continue to protect our Second Amendment rights," Deeds spokesman Jared Leopold said in a statement.