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Bush Courts 'NASCAR Dads' for Votes - 2004-02-15

President Bush is revving up his re-election campaign, as Democrats move closer to picking their presidential nominee. Mr. Bush is courting key constituencies, including a group that has gained fame as "NASCAR Dads".

Stock-car racing is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, and there is no bigger race than the Daytona 500 - the NASCAR season opener.

"This is more than an event, it is a way of life for a lot of people!" said President Bush. Wearing a black NASCAR jacket and squinting into the Florida sun, he took his place as the number-one fan at the Daytona International Motor Speedway.

During a pre-race interview with NBC television, he looked at the crowd and said, simply, "This is huge! You can feel the excitement here, and I am really looking forward to watching a lot of the race," he said.

After handshakes with the drivers, and photographs with some soldiers in uniform, the president uttered the words everyone at the track was waiting to hear. "Now it is my honor to start this race. Gentlemen, start your engines!" he said.

The 200,000 fans in the stands at Daytona cheered, while millions more watched on television.

They form a group that is heavily courted in this election year. Although NASCAR says its audience covers a broad spectrum of America, a stereotype fan has emerged. He is called the NASCAR Dad - white, male, conservative, and southern.

NASCAR dads are said to be a solidly Republican group. But Democrats see a chance for gains among those disenchanted with the president's handling of the economy.

"The president's policies have hit this group of voters very hard and I believe it is a very ripe voting bloc for the Democrats," said Steve Jarding, a Democratic Party consultant, who was interviewed on CNN's Late Edition program just moments before the race began in Daytona.

Supporters of the president say they are not surprised that the Democrats are trying to make inroads with the NASCAR Dads. But Tucker Eskew, a consultant to the Bush-Cheney re-election campaign, told CNN's Late Edition that they will not have much success with the Daytona 500 fans. "The president enjoys really strong ties in this part of the country and with people who enjoy sports. For the president, [the trip to Daytona] is not a political calculation as much as personal enjoyment. If we get some voters out of the deal, that is another good thing too," he said.

Mr. Bush's visit coincided with a voter registration drive run at the Daytona speedway all weekend by the Republican National Committee. Party volunteers hope to bring in as many as 8,000 new Republican voters and get them to sign a banner supporting the president's re-election.