Dems target 'NASCAR dads'

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

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.

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."

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.

"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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