Forget kissin' babies. Drive a pickup

Mark Sanford has a singular message he's trying to get across as he vies for governor of South Carolina: He's built Ford tough.

Coming into an election year when some commentators like Bill O'Reilly have warned against "wimpy" candidates, political hopefuls from Montgomery, Ala., to Mount Pleasant, S.C., are resurrecting one of the oldest political stratagems in the book: Run as the populist, the antipolitician. In other words, run as the owner of a pickup.

Indeed, when all else fails, incorporate farm tools of all kinds into your campaign. It's happening perhaps more subtly all over the country's spring-seeded political landscape. But here in South Carolina, the real peach state, showing off the "big ride" to voters is a political art form. It echoes the days of Southern legends like Lester Maddox and "Kissin' Jim" Folsom, who became famous for using farm implements like ax handles and flatbed trucks as political props.

But the props had better be authentic to pass muster here. Mr. Sanford recently caused a minor scandal when it was revealed it wasn't his truck in the ad, which shows the former congressman and lawyer tooling around his family's Beaufort County farm. (His own was too rusty to show on TV, he says.)

Indeed, the six candidates competing with Sanford for the chance to take on Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges have all been scrambling to claim the mantle of four-wheel drives as their own. In the run-up to today's GOP primary, Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler has put his shiny Ford F-150 so much in the forefront that the candidate himself, at least in one ad, barely shows up. Instead, the camera lovingly pans the truck's paneling as it sits at attention in front of the State House.

"At this point in the campaign, it seems like everybody's got to have a Ford F-150 pick-up truck – preferably a red one – in their ads," says Robert Adams, Peeler's campaign manager, who hastens to add: "Bob is the original guy with the red truck."

To some extent, the phenomenon embodies one of the ideals of Dixie-style politics. "It is distinctively Southern to run as a man of the people, a populist," says Stephen Wainscott, a political science professor at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C. "There used to be lots of campaigning on horses and donkeys, or standing on the back of a flatbed truck. It's really about being a good ol' boy."

In a broader sense, he adds, the image of the truck combines a nostalgia for the country, a uniquely American design, and a connection to the everyday life of the road-bound American. In short, it's the perfect political symbol. Hence its appearance elsewhere across the country's spring-seeded political landscape – from gubernatorial candidate Janet Reno's "red truck tour" in Florida to the quixotic (and now defunct) Senate run of high school teacher Victor Morales in Texas.

In the rural reaches of South Carolina, where farmers still dominate, the approach obviously makes a lot of sense. But trucks are increasingly becoming the vehicle-of-choice for soccer moms and corporate raiders, making the ads a savvy political choice. To be sure, showing off the big ride in the driveway is an open appeal to male voters – who tend to show up in greater numbers at the polls in primaries here. Yet analysts say women respond to the rumbling ads, too.

"I'm in one of those rural counties where the whole truck idea appeals to a lot of people, and it was a big issue in this town when it came out that Mark Sanford used a truck that wasn't his own in his ad," says Kay Maxwell, a campaign consultant for Secretary of State Jim Miles, another candidate.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Miles has jumped on the big-ride bandwagon, too. In one mailing, a picture from 20 years ago shows him by his trusted stock car. His motto: "We're talking about running, and running hard."

Here, nearly every shed has a truck in it, or by it. Many are slumping old Dodges and Fords, their round lines hinting at manufacturing dates from the 1950s. Others are ding-free, modern trucks, with sleek lines and chrome wheel wells.

Brazzle Knight owns four trucks, and he's using the grill of one as a backrest as he sits under the shade of an Ash tree, watching his son and grandson plow a field for soybeans.

"To me, the Democrats are always saying things that don't quite make sense. At least a truck makes sense," says the self- described Republican.

A portly man with an easy smile, the retired farmer says the truck is an appropriate symbol of strength and American virtue in a time of worries over the country's safety. What's more, it can help a candidate get noticed in a wide field – where Republicans are running the risk of seeming in disarray.

Just down the road, Ed Previtte disagrees. "They always use little tricks like that to catch your attention," says Previtte, a retiree who owns an old Dodge truck. "They won't be driving that truck once they're elected. They'll be driving a limo."

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