Tuesday, August 19, 2003

ROANOKE — Dawn Youngblood is an unwavering Republican, but on a recent Wednesday she stood for two hours on the shimmering, hot pavement outside a shuttered Sears to take part in a campaign event for Sen. Bob Graham, the Florida Democrat running for president.

Mrs. Youngblood hadn’t thought much about Mr. Graham before she got there.

“I saw the name before but it never interested my mind,” she said. “Until he got into racing.”

Like 75 million Americans, Mrs. Youngblood, 41, is an auto-racing fan, and the real reason she came to Mr. Graham’s event was to see NASCAR driver Ward Burton sign autographs with Mr. Graham.

“I was raised a Republican and I share the conservative values,” she said. “But I am such a NASCAR fan.”

Mrs. Youngblood is precisely the type of voter Mr. Graham aims to win over through a political strategy targeted to rural — and devoutly Republican — areas. Though this was a one-time appearance with Mr. Burton, Mr. Graham is also sponsoring a NASCAR racing truck and team as part of a larger effort to tap into cultural passions of rural America.

In its debut last month, Mr. Graham’s truck won a Kansas race, creating a stir in NASCAR as the first presidential campaign to sponsor a team.

Making inroads into traditionally Republican NASCAR country is no small undertaking. At the campaign event in Roanoke, Mr. Graham found himself in a congressional district where George Bush beat Al Gore by 19 percentage points in the 2000 election.

Mr. Graham said he can convince people like Mrs. Youngblood that the Republican Party has left her in the dust.

“There are a lot of people in America who have been overlooked,” he said. “There are millions of Americans who feel they have been left out by politicians.”

Certainly, NASCAR has its loyal fans. In the United States, its followers are eclipsed only by the 100 million fans of the National Football League, according to sports industry statistics. Among NASCAR fans, 40 million are “hard-core fans,” digesting 9.8 hours per week of NASCAR from newspapers, television and radio.

“They’re very passionate folks,” said John Miller, director of business development for Roush Racing, which owns and operates the team Mr. Graham sponsored.

And those fans are intensely loyal to the sponsors of race teams.

Performance Research, a sports-advertising research firm, finds 71 percent of NASCAR fans choose to buy products that sponsor NASCAR teams over products that do not. Other sports, such as football or tennis, attract about 50 percent brand loyalty, said the firm’s president, Jed Pearsall.

Though new to presidential politics, the NASCAR strategy has been credited with helping politicians.

Mr. Graham got the idea after hiring Steve Jarding, a political operative dedicated to steering rural voters back to the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

During Virginia’s 2001 governor’s race, Mark Warner hired Mr. Jarding and sponsored a NASCAR truck, along with other efforts to woo rural voters. Mr. Warner — a millionaire from Connecticut — won the governor’s mansion in Richmond as the first Democrat since 1985 to capture Virginia’s rural vote.

But as with Mr. Warner, Mr. Graham must avoid pitfalls.

Everyone agrees Mr. Graham is not the typical NASCAR fan. He’s a millionaire land developer and Harvard-educated lawyer. If he appears disingenuous to race fans, the NASCAR strategy will backfire.

So, Mr. Graham does not claim to be a cooler-toting, noise-loving race fan.

“NASCAR connects with anyone in America,” he said. “It sends the signal that we know you and we care about you.”

On the crumbling pavement of the Roanoke shopping center, hundreds of racing fans came out to see Mr. Graham’s truck and driver — and even Mr. Graham.

Asked about her party affiliation, Mrs. Youngblood quickly labeled herself a Republican. Then she thought a moment about Mr. Graham as he entered a throng of people admiring his racing truck and asked: “What does he run as?”

Told he is a Democrat, she replied with a mischievous smile, “Well, if he talks the talk, I might have to switch over.”

Others were not so open-minded.

Like many from rural Virginia, Stephanie and Lynn Carroll are staunch supporters of President Bush. As they left Mr. Graham’s campaign event, the Carrolls said they could not imagine voting for anyone other than Mr. Bush.

But, Mrs. Carroll added, she had never strayed from the Republican Party before 2001, when she voted for Mark Warner.

“He came out to the race track and showed a real interest in us,” she said. “We would not have met him and talked to him if it hadn’t been for racing. Then we liked him.”

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