CRAWFORD, Texas – Until last month, President Bush hadn't been to a NASCAR (search) race since he was governor of Texas and running for president. On Monday, he goes to a rodeo and livestock exhibition in Houston — again, for the first time since he was governor.
Such appearances at sporting events this election year help Bush shore up his standing with his core supporters: white men.
They also show him as a plain-talking boots-wearer with Middle America tastes — an image Bush has cultivated for years to counter his background as an Ivy Leaguer from an old, wealthy, New England-based family. That comes in handy particularly this year, as the president will almost certainly face Democratic Sen. John Kerry (search), a wealthy Northeasterner the Bush campaign aims to paint as out of sync with much of the country.
Allan Lichtman, a political scientist at American University in Washington, said the events call attention to Bush as "both the macho guy and the regular guy."
"Despite all the charges that his administration is a giveaway to the rich, this shows President Bush as in touch with the concerns and the lives of ordinary Americans in all the ways the patrician, distant, former hippie war protester John Kerry isn't," Lichtman said.
An Associated Press poll taken last week showed Bush leading Kerry by almost 20 percent among white men.
But that doesn't mean the president has no work to do among that demographic. Increasing loyalty among core supporters early in the election season is a classic campaign strategy.
Furthermore, the entire election could turn on a small number of votes in states such as West Virginia and Missouri where white men are a key bloc and the election was very close in 2000, Lichtman said.
"He certainly isn't hurting with his base, but he doesn't want to have to worry about his base either," Lichtman said.
The Kerry campaign has eagerly publicized the senator's penchant for hunting, hockey, windsurfing and other sports. But Kerry spokesman Chad Clanton questioned whether the events are the best use of the president's time when important economic and national security matters face the country.
"Maybe the president is hanging out at spectator sports to try and make people forget the past 3 1/2 years, but it won't work," he said Sunday. "People aren't going to be fooled by this."
Activities such as throwing out the first pitch at the World Series and hosting major sports champions at the White House are longtime presidential traditions that well predate Bush.
And Bush's credentials as a genuine sports fan, who would rather turn on a game than just about anything else and avidly reads sports pages, aren't in doubt. Early in his presidency, the former owner of the Texas Rangers baseball team even instituted a Sunday T-ball league on the South Lawn.
But recent months have seen an increased emphasis.
Last month, he made a high-profile appearance at NASCAR's most prestigious event, the Daytona 500, buzzing the crowd in Air Force One, looping the track in his motorcade and officially opening the race. The last time he showed up for a NASCAR event was in July 2000, also at the Daytona International Speedway, to watch the Pepsi 400.
The Bush White House also has added NASCAR winners to the list of sports victors that get White House invitations, letting drivers pull stock cars onto the South Lawn in December.
But it's not just NASCAR, with its prized voter profile and 75 million-strong fan base, that is getting Bush's attention.
His campaign made sure that the first round of re-election ads air on Fox Sports Net, ESPN and the Golf Channel.
He helped kick off the Super Bowl with a pre-game interview on CBS, aired live nationally from the White House's Rose Garden. He also offered a brief — and light on substance — give-and-take with an NBC sportscaster just before the Daytona 500.
Also in February, Bush stopped at a Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World store during a visit to Springfield, Mo. After schmoozing with customers, Bush, an avid fisherman, left with a bagful of fishing gear.
Sports even got a coveted piece of State of the Union real estate. In the January address, Bush appealed to major sports leagues and athletes to end the use of performance-enhancing drugs, such as steroids.
On Monday, Bush travels to the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, where he will tour cattle pens and meet with cowboys set to compete.
The Bush campaign wouldn't comment, since most appearances have been official White House events. White House spokeswoman Suzy DeFrancis said that while more sports venues will appear on Bush's schedule in the coming months, the events are little different from the president's travels to small businesses, military bases and other places where he makes it part of his job as president to explain his agenda.
"It's a good way to get out and participate in American life," DeFrancis said.