Thursday, January 15, 2004

Howard Dean supporters are making a big play for the so-called “NASCAR Dads” by sponsoring a race car in the Busch Series this year.

At $2.5 million, it’s a risky price tag for Team Dean Racing, because Mr. Dean is in tight races in must-win primaries and might not even win the Democratic nomination; the NASCAR season runs through November.

But even bolder, say Democratic experts and lawyers, is that the racing team plans to skirt laws that strictly govern how money is raised and spent to promote a presidential campaign.

“As complicated as the new campaign-finance laws are, this is a no-brainer,” said a Democratic campaign-finance lawyer. “If they’re paying for something that benefits the campaign, then it’s either an in-kind contribution or an independent expenditure. Either way, they have to file with the” Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Erin Titman, spokeswoman for Team Dean Racing, said federal election lawyers have reviewed their plans and determined that they are free from campaign-finance laws, are not required to publicly list supporters and don’t need to file papers with the FEC.

“This is a privately funded race team,” Ms. Titman said. It will be bankrolled by contributions from Dean supporters from across the country, she said.

Several Democratic campaign-finance experts said at the very least, the team would be “pooling” money, thus requiring it to register with the FEC. The team further could be limited from raising more than $2,000 per contributor, including money the donor already has donated to Mr. Dean’s presidential campaign.

The degree to which Team Dean Racing must abide by campaign-finance laws depends upon the level of independence it has from the Dean for America campaign.

Ms. Titman said there “is not a whole lot” of contact with the Dean campaign.

“We’re trying to stay as far away from them as possible,” she said.

Dean spokesman Jay Carson said there has been no contact between the racing team and the campaign, although he’s heard of it.

“This is the greatest grass-roots campaign in modern politics,” he said. “That’s what grass roots is all about. We have supporters doing events all over the country.”

Ms. Titman said the team plans to coordinate Dean rallies at NASCAR races throughout the season, which starts next month. The team also is coordinating appearances with Mr. Dean’s brother, Jim.

To run in all 34 Busch Series NASCAR races this year, the team plans to collect $2.5 million nationwide from Dean supporters. That’s far below the $4 million to $5 million race teams usually spend in a season.

Any money the team has left over, Ms. Titman said, will be donated to, a liberal interest group that has been harshly critical of President Bush and the war in Iraq.

The idea to sponsor a car, she said, arose entirely from Dean supporters who contacted race-car driver Brian Weber, who is owner and operator of Team Dean Racing.

“He wants to get Howard Dean’s message out there,” Ms. Titman said. “He’s combining his love of racing with a cause he really believes in.”

Mr. Weber, who lives is Mooresville, N.C., and owns a construction company there, grew up in Long Island, N.Y., where Mr. Dean also grew up. He never has met Mr. Dean, he said, though he hopes to one day.

Mr. Weber said he is sick and tired of the refined, packaged Washington politicians who always try to please everyone.

“If you appeal to everyone, you’re probably a liar,” he said.

“I don’t think [Dean] talks out both sides of his mouth,” Mr. Weber said. “He doesn’t always talk from scripts. He connects to people.”

The is not the first foray of politics into auto racing.

Democratic strategist Steve Jarding long has urged Democrats to tap into Southern and rural parts of America to find voters who in recent years have voted for Republicans.

“Many of these people have far more in common with Democrats than they do with Republicans,” said Mr. Jarding, who has advised several Democratic presidential campaigns this cycle. This voting group has come to be called “NASCAR Dads,” though racing fans include many women and children as well.

Mr. Jarding sponsored a race car in Iowa for Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and a NASCAR truck for Sen. Bob Graham of Florida, who since has dropped out of the race.

He said he was not familiar with the particulars of Team Dean Racing, but said, “It’s smart to do. [Mr. Dean] will get a residual benefit by reaching a different audience than Democrats have in recent years.”

But, Mr. Jarding warned, “I don’t think it can be done in a vacuum. He’ll have to back it up with policies that are good for people in rural America.”

Although Mr. Dean’s appeal to rural America might not be tested until November’s presidential election, Team Dean Racing’s first test will be next month. The first race is scheduled for Feb. 14 in Daytona Beach, Fla.

Team Dean’s car is a white Chevrolet Monte Carlo with blue and red stars and stripes, according to designs provided by the team. The hood and sides of the No. 84 car says: “Howard Dean for President.” The trunk is emblazoned with the Web site address for Mr. Dean’s campaign.

Should Mr. Dean get the Democratic nod, it would mean free exposure every Saturday until the election. Numbers show that about 75 million people per year watch the races live or on television.

Mr. Weber, however, said he is unconcerned about tangling with any federal campaign-financing laws.

“There’s nothing wrong with any of this,” he said. “My bumper sticker’s just a little bigger than yours.”

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