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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.

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GLESKE, though he counts himself a Democrat, hardly fits a Boston-brownstone stereotype. His passion is motor-cross racing, and he totes his three sons across the South almost weekly, in an RV so large it has its own garage. For Gleske and the firefighters who came to Richmond with him, the weekend is as much a social occasion as a sporting event.

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"Sometimes the noise gets in the way of the party," admits firefighter Keith Gent.

It's a cultural divide Democrats are well aware of.

"In the South, white males consider Democrats to be a bunch of wusses," says Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Virginia Democrat who orchestrated the Graham sponsorship of driver Jon Wood's truck. "The Democrats have done a terrible job with the culture in the South. And NASCAR is one way that we can move through the culture and start talking about issues and ideology."

Politicians, of course, have stopped at racetracks since Prohibition ended and racing spread through the country. The races offer a way for politicians to speak directly to huge crowds - even if it's from the hood of a souped-up stock car.

"Where else are you going to get 100,000 people coming in and out of gates?" asks Brad Gomez, a political scientist at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "You don't have that opportunity at the presidential level unless you live in New Hampshire."

In the past, Strom Thurmond and George H.W. Bush made it part of their strategy. The cachet of North Carolina Gov. Mike Easley (D) - a low-key fellow - rose dramatically after he crashed a car during a pre-race event earlier this year. Virginia's Governor Warner sponsored a dirt-track car two years ago, a strategy experts say helped him wrest the governor's chair back from the Republicans for the first time in decades.

"This NASCAR dad strategy is a conscious effort to regain some of that lost constituency, to reach out and connect with voters whose fathers never voted Republican in their lives, and whose grandfathers certainly never did," says Mr. Wright.

For those packing up after the race on Sunday, it's too early to start talking about which candidate they want.

"I vote with the union, and sometimes that means a Republican and sometimes a Democrat," says Gleske. "But the only way I'd get stirred up about politics right now is if someone tried to close this track down."

Mark and Caroline Stephenson flew in from Humboldt, Neb., rented an RV, and came to Richmond for a five-day getaway. While they hail from a Republican enclave 90 miles outside Lincoln, the Stephensons say they may vote Democrat this year.

"We're definitely seeing more politics at the races," says Caroline. "It only makes sense: If you can get the attention of 80,000 people at a track, why waste your time with a Home Depot opening?"

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