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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 September, 2003, 02:21 GMT 03:21 UK
Winning over the Nascar dads

By Matt Wells
BBC correspondent in New Hampshire

Father with his son at Nascar race
Nascar dads are described as socially conservative but fair

The Democratic contenders for the right to challenge US President George W Bush next year are due to hold their second official debate in New York City.

Many eyes will be on the newest addition to the race, retired General Wesley Clark, who will be squaring-off with his nine opponents for the first time.

In that strange tradition of American politics, the most significant audience will be the people who get to vote in the Democrat beauty contest first, in key states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

But becoming the candidate is only the beginning and pollsters agree the key group who all the candidates - including the president - need to appeal to, is married parents.

President Clinton's former pollster, Mark Penn, says his former boss's crowning electoral achievement was to get more mums and dads to vote Democrat.

"Clinton carried married parents by 7% in 1996; Bush carried them by 15% in 2000," he notes.

Key states

In the mid 1990s, the two-term president famously appealed to the American "Soccer Moms" in order to win over suburban America.

Rural southern men, they're going to vote Bush because there's a perception that Democrats are a bunch of wusses
Democratic strategist Dave "Mudcat" Saunders
In the current race, a new key group has been identified that Democrats must win back - the "Nascar Dads".

Nascar stands for North American Stock Car Auto Racing and it has got an estimated 70 million fans around the country.

Its heartland is the south and mid-west, where many of the key states that decide the presidency are located.

As with the more international and glamorous Formula One franchise, Nascar moves from city to city each week around the country, giving fans a chance to see the deafening race action live.

At the New Hampshire International Speedway circuit, 90,000 were expected on the big race day.

I went along to find out whether the Nascar "demographic", identified by pollsters as switchable, white, blue-collar and lower middle-class men, bears up to reality.

'Bunch of wusses'?

The Democratic Party appeal to Nascar man has been taken quite literally by one of the presidential nomination candidates, Senator Bob Graham, whose home state is the key battleground of Florida.

Audience watches Nascar race
Democrats need around 50% of the Nascar dad vote, analysts estimate
He sponsors racing pickup truck number 50, which has the slogan "Bob Graham for President" emblazoned on its side.

His "rural outreach strategist" is fellow southerner, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders.

"If we can get through the culture as Democrats and get to the ideology, then we'll win every time," he says.

"Rural southern men, they're going to vote Bush because there's a perception that Democrats are a bunch of wusses," he adds with a smile.

Another Democrat lapping up the day's Nascar action was the chair of the New Hampshire State Democrats, Kathy Sullivan.

She and her husband have been fans for several years.

"While the stereotypical Nascar dad might be socially conservative, at the same time that person is fundamentally fair," she says.

"If we are able to get that across... then we will win their hearts back."

Signs of hope?

Walking around the stalls just outside the stadium, which sell everything from US Army memorabilia to individual beer can coolers, there were no black faces in sight.

Nascar is certainly a white sport.

Asking for another 87 billion dollars to help the war in Iraq, when you've got people in this country who and are homeless and hungry... I think it's ridiculous
Voter Fred Raphael
The majority of fans I spoke to are still giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt.

"He kicked Iraq's ass - give him four more years," one man barks into my microphone.

Troy Kittel had travelled with his family from neighbouring Vermont to be at the race.

He is not registered with any party - an ideal target for the Democrat activists.

"I'm going to vote Bush again, because the Democrats think that they control us and our money. They just want to tax and spend more," he says.

But there were some signs of hope here for the Democrats.

Several Bush-voting fathers told me they had serious concerns about mounting job losses and the spiralling budget deficit.

More laps to go

There was widespread concern, also, at the length and cost of America's involvement in Iraq.

Fred Raphael and his son had travelled from another nearby state, Massachusetts.

He says he is definitely going Democrat.

"Asking for another $87bn to help the war in Iraq, when you've got people in this country who and are homeless and hungry... I think it's ridiculous," he tells me.

Teamsters' union member Ken Hook says many people were beginning to feel cheated.

"Bush is all about big business and I don't think he's concerned about working people," he says.

The inventor of the Nascar dad term, pollster Celinda Lake, says the Democrats need to carry around 50% of them in order to win back the White House.

On the evidence of one afternoon at the races, in the albeit Republican-leaning state of New Hampshire, they have a few more laps to go.

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