SEATTLE (AP) _ Swarmed by autograph seekers and admirers, actor Charlton Heston easily won a National Rifle Association board election Saturday, a key test for the gun lobby's embattled leadership.

Heston, 72, worked the aisles like a veteran politician as voting began at a tumultuous membership meeting on the second day of the NRA's annual convention. Dozens sought his signature, questioned him about his movie roles, showed off their babies and posed for pictures beside him.

Heston received 1,038 out of 1,410 ballots cast _ about 74 percent of the vote _ to beat out 157 other candidates for a lone seat on the 76-member board. The other 75 board members were chosen earlier in voting by mail.

Close by was the NRA's top administrator, executive vice president Wayne R. LaPierre Jr., who nearly lost his job at a board meeting in February and whom Heston is trying to keep in office.

Heston said he would likely seek access to members of Congress, adding that healing wounds within the NRA was critical.

``Certainly there are still problems, and we will certainly address them . . . I was only just elected,'' Heston said.

Heston was endorsed by former Reagan administration White House aide Oliver L. North, who wrote a letter distributed Saturday which also supported LaPierre.

``In many ways, the future of the National Rifle Association is dependent upon Wayne's leadership,'' the letter said.

The convention, which draws an estimated 20,000 or more hunters, gun collectors, firearms dealers and weapons manufacturers, concludes Sunday. Officers are elected in a two-day board meeting that begins Monday.

LaPierre, who has been blamed for the association's debts and dropoffs in membership, is running against first vice president Neal Knox, 61, of Rockville, Md., whom many say caters to anti-government militias.

Three months ago, the board voted 39-30 for a bylaw change to clear the way for the removal of LaPierre, but failed to reach the two-thirds vote required.

On Saturday, LaPierre accused his critics of a shortsighted ``it's finances, stupid'' approach.

``If the NRA is about bank accounts instead of gun rights, if you want a stockbroker instead of a freedom fighter, then get yourself another guy,'' he shouted.

The latest audit shows the NRA had a negative net worth of $46.5 million, an improvement from more than $50 million in the red a year ago. Operations had been in the black for three years.

Membership has dropped 20 percent to 2.8 million in two years and assets fell from $80 million to $49 million.

LaPierre, 47, said he spent two decades in the trenches for gun rights.

``For those 20 years, government and media and pop culture have aligned in an unholy trinity that would have sent your rights to hell were it not for the NRA,'' he said.

Knox, a former NRA chief lobbyist who writes about guns for magazines, accused LaPierre of overspending without authorization and denied being a fringe radical.

``I've spent my life in defense and furtherance of the Second Amendment,'' Knox said, ``but from some of the stuff that you've been reading here lately, you'd think that you were listening to the devil incarnate.''

The meeting became so raucous that President Marion P. Hammer ordered the microphones turned off. LaPierre tried to speak anyway.

``We're not going to yell at each other,'' Ms. Hammer said. ``We're going to be polite like ladies and gentlemen.''