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Dems target 'NASCAR dads'

Candidates hope economics - and cars - will bring white southern men back to the party of their grandfathers.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 2003



RICHMOND, VA.

A gruff firefighter with a sprinkle of white stubble on his head, John Gleske gets his fill of politics back at his Fairfax, Va., firehouse. "I come here to get away from all that," he says, camped in his gigantic RV outside the Richmond International Raceway.

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But despite three days of bone-rattling engine thunder, capped off by Saturday night's Chevy 400 race, Mr. Gleske's attempt to get away from politics wasn't entirely successful. Welcoming him and 103,000 other fans to the biggest sporting event in Virginia's history were Gov. Mark Warner (D) and Sen. George Allen (R).

If soccer moms defined elections in the '90s, "NASCAR dads" like Gleske are one group Democrats are targeting in 2004.

At least two presidential candidates - Sen. Bob Graham of Florida and Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - are already launching populist campaigns designed to draw mostly white country boys back to the party of their grandfathers. Current frontrunner Howard Dean has also talked about appealing to the group on the issue of jobs.

Republicans still dominate much of the country's rural expanses, especially in the South. But Senator Graham's sponsorship of a truck in NASCAR's Craftsman series is the boldest gambit yet to draw the attention of the NASCAR dad - a demographic of largely blue-collar workers who may say no to gay marriage but yes to cheaper, or even universal, healthcare. Several NASCAR racers will be the guests of honor at a Graham fundraiser in Loudon, N.H., Friday night, before driver Jon Wood races there this weekend.

"The NASCAR dad is a family man, not only married with children, but usually married to the same woman, something that's increasingly rare in America," says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics in Charlottesville, Va. "They have a conservative orientation, but they're often aligned with Democrats on economic issues."

From Darlington to Talladega, from Loudon to Richmond, NASCAR's baseball-cap wearing legions - some 75 million fans - are an emerging force in the race for the White House. Both Democrats and Republicans are hoping they'll pick their president early and stick with him, much as they do "their" drivers - pretty boy Jeff Gordon, outsider Kurt Busch, or hometown hero Dale Earnhardt Jr. - whose numbers they plaster on cars, hats, and T-shirts.

Moreover, it's a culture that's expanding - a Southern export as much in demand as the Krispy Kreme doughnut.

"We're not talking about the 20 percent of Americans who still live in rural areas - we're talking about small-town people, suburban people, a lot of big-city people, whose roots and orientation are more country than city," says Jim Wright, a Florida sociologist who just published "Fixin' to Git: One fan's love affair with NASCAR's Winston Cup."

This "rural strategy" is a dramatic change for Democrats. They won soccer moms on the appeal of education and gun control, but today's favored demographic is decidedly more rugged: The NASCAR dad goes to church, loves to hunt and fish, and may wear a T-shirt with the slogan "Guns, God, and guts: That's what made America great."

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