WASHINGTON – Some of the top names in NASCAR (search) raced to the White House Tuesday to meet with President Bush, who is hoping the sport's 75 million fans will put him in the driver's seat in the 2004 presidential election.
Hot from a trip to Pittsburgh, where the president drew $850,000 toward his re-election campaign and avoided the issue of whether he will repeal steel tariffs (search), deemed critical to steel producers in the state, Bush focused on a new — and growing — voting bloc.
"NASCAR is one of the fastest growing sports in America today ... and it's easy to figure out why the sport is so popular — the competition is intense, the drivers and their crews are skillful, the finishes are often times dramatic," Bush said in a crisp South Lawn ceremony in which he congratulated 2003 NASCAR Winston Cup Series point champion Matt Kenseth (search).
The president also greeted 10 former winners and top drivers in a forum similar to those he holds to greet champion teams in other sports. Among the stars at the event were Dale Earnhardt Jr., Tony Stewart, Bill Elliott, Bobby Labonte and Terry Labonte.
Noting the large audience made up of his staff and lawmakers, the president, flanked by several of the colorful, high performance vehicles, joked: "I see a lot of bubbas who work in my administration have shown up. I wonder why. I've hosted champions from many sports here at the White House — [this is] the first time, however, we ever parked stock cars in the South Lawn."
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and Reps. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., Chris Chocola, R-Ind., and Mac Collins, R-Ga., also attended the event.
"Congressman Mac Collins — I knew he was a race car fan — good to see you, Mac. You are a Bubba," Bush said to laughter.
The mostly male, white working-class audience that makes up NASCAR's fan base is actively being courted as the new demographic power group that candidates hope will give them the best poll position in 2004. Dubbed "NASCAR dads," the group is this year's version of the so-called "soccer moms" that former President Bill Clinton charmed in 1992 and 1996.
A look at the map shows how important NASCAR dads are. Seven of the Southern and Western states that Bush won in 2000 — and where NASCAR has its greatest support — have gained 11 more electoral votes.
Bush advisers say they are hoping to get more than just votes from the group; they want to see NASCAR dads hit the campaign trail and actively push for a second term for the president.
Democrats, however, haven't given up trying to tap into the large number of racing fans who could be persuaded to vote Democratic. Florida Sen. Bob Graham, who dropped out of the race, even sponsored a NASCAR truck.
"If Democrats hope to be competitive in a lot of Southern states and some border and Northern states as well, they feel they've got to attract some of these NASCAR dads," said political analyst Michael Barone.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean sputtered by taking the wrong approach to Southern voters, telling the Des Moines Register that he wanted to be the candidate of guys with Confederate flags on their pickup trucks.
The remark caused more controversy than support, and Dean quickly tried to rectify the matter, though he perhaps only alienated NASCAR fans more.
"I think the Confederate flag is a racist symbol. I think there are a lot of poor people who fly that flag because the Republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their Southern race strategy," Dean told a young audience at a Rock the Vote debate in November.
North Carolina Sen. John Edwards, who sponsored a race car during his Senate bid, may be the only Democrat who can make a legitimate appeal.
"First, what we need to do to reach out to what you describe as NASCAR dads is focus on the various issues that affect their day to day lives," Edwards said in a forum the following night.
Political analyst Larry Sabato said, try as they might, Democrats don't have much of a shot at winning over wide percentages of NASCAR fans.
"This reminds me a lot of the Republicans' age-old attempt to appeal to African-Americans. African-Americans still give 90 percent of their vote to Democrats and I don't see that changing either," said Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
Barone added that Democrats do not expect to win the group, they just want to lose as little as possible.
"They don't want to lose this group 70 to 30. They would like to cut that edge to 60-40, or whatever the precise numbers are," Barone said.
Cutting that edge will require some work. Tuesday's event was the second annual NASCAR tribute since the president inaugurated the ceremony. NASCAR fans are also considered very brand loyal, for instance, buying laundry detergent like Tide because they like the stock car or the driver sponsored by Tide.
Bush also went one step further Tuesday, giving Kenseth the keyboard for a White House Internet forum usually reserved for administration officials.
The "Ask the White House" feature on the White House Web site previously allowed anyone with an Internet connection to question people like the White House chief of staff and Cabinet officials. On a couple of occasions, the feature has also included sports stars such as NFL Hall of Fame wide receiver Lynn Swann and former baseball star Cal Ripken.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and The Associated Press contributed to this report.