- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2003

Gov. Mark Warner’s political strategists are joining Sen. Bob Graham’s presidential campaign in the hope of securing Virginia — and other Southern states — for the Florida Democrat.

Warner campaign manager Steve Jarding and rural strategist Dave “Mudcat” Saunders are actively working on Mr. Graham’s behalf to attract voters in the rural areas of Virginia.

“Bob Graham is the best candidate for Virginia for the same reason he is the best candidate for America — Graham can take [President] Bush out of power with him,” Mr. Saunders said.

A three-term U.S. senator from Florida and former cattle rancher, Mr. Graham is one of nine candidates seeking the Democratic nomination for president.

While some of the other Democratic candidates have focused their attention to heavily populated areas such as Northern Virginia and Richmond, Mr. Graham is hoping to use the Warner model of attracting rural voters to win the nomination.

Attempts to reach Mr. Jarding for comment were unsuccessful. But, Mr. Jarding told Florida’s St. Petersburg Times that Democrats have ignored rural voters for too long.

“Democrats got fat and lazy and took rural areas for granted,” he said.

That’s why, Mr. Graham on Wednesday began his campaign in Virginia by attending events in Roanoke, a city of about 94,000 residents in the southwestern part of the state. It’s 168 miles west of Richmond.

The all-day affair included a fund-raiser headlined by Grammy Award-winning bluegrass singer Ralph Stanley. The concert packed abut 200 people into a small coffeehouse in downtown Roanoke.

Mr. Stanley, a registered Democrat, said being involved so closely with presidential politics is new to him, but he believed his music could make a difference.

“Bluegrass and old-time music has lots of fans now,” Mr. Stanley said. “Me, I think I could change a lot of people’s minds.”

Mr. Saunders agreed. “Ralph Stanley introduced Bob Graham as the next president of the United States,” he said. “When Doctor Ralph Stanley does that, he’s like a god down here, like the Wizard of Oz. When he talks, people’s heads bow.”

Taking a page out of the successful Warner campaign, the Graham campaign also has sponsored a truck in the NASCAR racing circuit to attract the so-called NASCAR Democrats who helped Mr. Warner win the governorship.

“Millions of Americans feel they’ve been left out of life. Seventy-five million people follow NASCAR, so this isn’t just a sport, it’s rural America we’re reaching out to,” Mr. Graham said in Roanoke as he posed with a racing version of a pickup truck that featured his campaign logo.

A businessman from Northern Virginia, Mr. Warner ran for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and narrowly lost to incumbent Republican Sen. John W. Warner, no relation.

Five years later, with the help of Mr. Saunders and Mr. Jarding, Mr. Warner, whose name recognition didn’t stretch much beyond the Capital Beltway, was elected governor of a state that had grown increasingly Republican. Many credited Mr. Warner’s victory over then-Attorney General Mark Earley to his ability to attract rural voters.

Mr. Saunders and Mr. Jarding are hoping to have the same success this time.

“Both men have very moderate messages and Virginia, as a Southern state, likes moderates. They do not like their candidates too far in either direction,” Mr. Saunders said.

After helping elect Mr. Warner, Mr. Saunders and Mr. Jarding went to work for U.S. Sen. John Edwards’ political action committee. Since then, Mr. Edwards, of North Carolina, announced his run for the Democratic nomination, but Mr. Saunders said working on Mr. Edwards’ campaign wasn’t meant to be.

“I can speak for myself, that I had serious differences with a member of the campaign staff, but I have nothing against Johnny Edwards,” Mr. Saunders said. “I consider Johnny and his wife, Elizabeth, as good friends.”

Mr. Graham was not the only Democratic contender to make a stop in Virginia this week. Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut met with voters in Richmond on Tuesday.

Last month, Mr. Warner signed legislation that moved up Virginia’s primary from April to February. The change in date gives Virginia voters a greater say about the eventual nominee. As a result, Virginia is expected to host more presidential candidates in the coming months.

“They are going to know about us,” Mr. Saunders said.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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