Despite the fact that not a single U.S. Presidential primary has taken place and the 2008 general election looms more than 13 months away, candidates have targeted sportsmen and shooting enthusiasts as a constituency critically important to their campaigns.

Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, candidate for the Republican nomination, announced in April 2007 that he was a lifelong hunter. Just days after his statement, however, it was revealed that the presidential hopeful had never held a hunting license in any of the four states where he has resided.Dovehunt

Last week’s National Rifle Association “Celebration of American Values” convention held in Washington, DC included presentations (live or video) from Republican candidates John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney, Duncan Hunter, Tom Tancredo, Fred Thompson and Democrat Bill Richardson.

Richardson, by the way, stepped forward in June to announce publicly that he has hunted turkey, deer, elk and oryx. As governor of New Mexico, he also has signed into law a concealed carry measure.

So, why have presidential candidates seemingly turned a corner in recent years and realized that sportsmen—and their issues—are important?

A new report released this Tuesday by the Congressional Sportsmen’s Foundation sheds some light on the political phenomenon.

“Hunting and Fishing: Bright Stars of the American Economy–A Force as Big as All Outdoors,” uses the data gleaned from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s 2006 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation and compares hunters’ and anglers’ impact on the economy with other industries and constituencies.

The report reveals that the 35 million or so who hunt and fish spend more than $76 billion annually to enjoy their pursuits. If they were a commercial enterprise, such capital would place sportsmen on Fortune 500’s Top 20 list.

“While hunting and fishing are generally thought of as just outdoor traditions, they actually comprise an outdoor nation–both in terms of economic impact, and in turning out the vote on Election Day,” said CSF President, Jeff Crane.

What that means to presidential, gubernatorial and congressional candidates is that America’s sportsmen and women constitute one of the country’s most prominent and influential demographic groups.

Further, according to the data, nearly 8 in 10 hunters, anglers and shooting enthusiasts say they always vote in U.S. Presidential elections—and that outdoor and Second Amendment issues are important in their voting choices.

Additionally, in key presidential “swing” states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida, fully 20 percent of the total state populations hold a hunting or fishing license, or both.

So, what does it all mean?

Well, while we thankfully will not be subjected to John Kerry in another lame goose-hunting photo op during the next election cycle, we can probably expect to see at least a few of presidential hopefuls in duck blinds and wearing camo before November 2008.