- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 14, 2004

DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — Here’s a challenge: Try finding a Democrat in the NASCAR garage.

Richard Petty looked around and smiled.

“You’d be hard-pressed,” said Petty, the winningest driver in Nextel Cup history and — oh, yeah — a hard-core Republican.

If President Bush were looking for a friendly audience in this vitriolic election season, he sure picked the right place. He is assured of getting a warm welcome — especially from those on the track — when he attends tomorrow’s Daytona 500.

“He’s just a great American,” said Terry Labonte, a Bush supporter and fellow Texan. “In times like this, I’m glad we’ve got someone like him in office.”

Without question, this is Republican Country.

Ronald Reagan came to Daytona during his 1984 re-election campaign. Mr. Bush’s father stopped by while running — unsuccessfully, by the way — for a second term in 1992. And now comes another Bush, hoping to tap into a loyal voting bloc.

Why do the Republicans seemingly have such a one-party hold on this sport?

“We’re all individuals,” explained Petty, who once held political office in his native North Carolina. “When the guys in here go to lobby NASCAR, most of the time it’s what can they do for me? It’s not for anybody else. This is not a very socialistic operation in here, that’s for sure.”

Labonte put it more bluntly.

“I guess most of ‘em just have a lot of common sense,” he said, referring to his fellow drivers and Republicans. “I like to say we’re true Americans. We don’t fall for as much … as those guys on the other side of the aisle.”

Not that the Democrats have conceded this group — generally stereotyped as Southern, white males — to the Republicans.

Hoping to follow the model set by “soccer moms” — suburban housewives who helped put Bill Clinton in the White House for eight years — the Democrats have targeted “NASCAR dads” in 2004.

“Every presidential election, it seems like there’s some new, vogue term to describe some key demographic group,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political scientist at Emory University. “It’s not really NASCAR dads, per se. What some Democrats are saying is, ‘Hey, we can make inroads in what has become a solidly Republican group.’ They don’t have to carry that group, just do a little bit better than they have recently.”

The Democrats hope to make inroads with voters who normally cast ballots for the Republicans in national elections but might be growing disenchanted with Bush’s handling of the economy, stagnant job prospects, Iraq and the ballooning budget deficit.

Just about every weekend between now and Election Day, there’s going to be a captive audience of prospective voters at racetracks all over the country. Crowds of more than 100,000 are not uncommon.

“If I was running for office and I could reach that kind of platform,” driver Kyle Petty said, “I would utilize it as much as possible.”

The Republicans don’t sound too worried about losing support from folks who load up their coolers, put on the sunscreen and head to the racetrack every weekend — a fan base estimated at 75 million.

“Having Democrats trolling for votes among NASCAR dads,” scoffed Republican pollster Whit Ayers, “is like Republicans trolling for votes at a NOW convention,” referring to the liberal National Organization for Women.

Certainly, the Democrats hope for a better reception than Mr. Clinton got in 1992, when he showed up for a race in Darlington, S.C., during his first run for the presidency.

Many of the drivers were conspicuously absent when Mr. Clinton worked his way through the garage. The crowd booed lustily when the soon-to-be president was introduced.

“That was kind of embarrassing,” Labonte said, managing a weak smile. “Just because you’re not going to vote for the man, you don’t have to boo him. I’ll never forget that.”

Driver Mark Martin got the seemingly thankless task of escorting Mr. Clinton around the paddock. Both were from Arkansas, so NASCAR asked Martin to handle the duty.

Looking back, Martin said he didn’t mind being seen with a man who was obviously viewed with scorn and skepticism by most of the other drivers.

“My dad told me he did a lot of great things for our state,” Martin said. “I probably wouldn’t have escorted him around if I thought he was a heel.”

While professing that he’s not into politics, Martin did speak some brave words as he walked toward his motor home after Wednesday’s practice — he actually believes Mr. Clinton was a pretty good president.

“I’m not into whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat — I care about the individual,” Martin said, not even bothering to lower his voice to a whisper. “I will tell you this: I don’t believe the Republicans when they say everything good that Clinton did was just luck, and all the bad stuff that’s happened since Bush has been in office is just bad luck.

“Hey, at least the budget got balanced when Clinton was in there.”

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