Sunday, October 31, 2004
Turn left, lean right
The link between the GOP and NASCAR has become obvious in the campaign homestretch.
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The Roanoke Times
The fax arrived the other night. President Bush's re-election campaign wanted Dale Jarrett to appear at another rally. Car owner Richard Childress received a similar request.
As the presidential campaign enters its final days, Bush staffers are using NASCAR to reach voters in what is expected to be a tight race between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry.
And why not? NASCAR is known for its strong Republican fan base. President Bush attended the Daytona 500 in February and was to have been at another race until his plans changed. What once was an oddity, the president attending a NASCAR race, is becoming the norm.
Credit the sport's growth for the change.
"NASCAR has been growing by leaps and bounds in terms of fans," says Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "As such, they will have a larger political role. The size of the role will be determined by the size of NASCAR."
Nielsen Media Research reported that more than 8 million people watched the Oct.16 Nextel Cup race at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the most recent figures available. Considering that Bush won Florida by less than 1,000 votes to win the 2000 election, every vote is important. Thus, the aggressive campaign.
"The Bush folks have come to everybody," Jeff Gordon says.
Sabato says the Republican Party uses NASCAR to motivate fans to vote. The decision for many competitors to speak out is easy, Sabato says, since they risk alienating few fans.
"You see some football and baseball players endorsing," Sabato says. "Frankly, their fans don't care. NASCAR, it's a cult. It's partly a cult and those drivers all have their individual cults."
NASCAR car owners and former champions went on a two-day barnstorming tour for Bush last week through Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and West Virginia. The group included car owner Jack Roush and former champ Darrell Waltrip.
Bush's Web site touts that nine of the 10 title contenders endorse the president. Gordon is not listed, preferring to keep his pick private. The Web site also lists several other drivers, owners and NASCAR President Mike Helton as endorsing President Bush. Unable to find sponsorship, Kirk Shelmerdine has had Bush decals on his car since last month.
Jarrett has donated time and money to the campaign. Federal Election Commission records show that Jarrett contributed $2,000 to the Bush campaign since last fall. Jarrett also spoke at a Bush rally in Concord, N.H., last month. He said he was joined by Jeff Burton, car owner Robert Yates, Childress and Helton.
"Sure you get e-mails and cards and letters form the people that are opposed to what you're saying," Jarrett said. "As I tell each and every one of them, I have the right to do what I want with my dollars and my opinion and I support President Bush."
Mark Martin joins Jarrett. Martin was scheduled for last week's NASCAR for Bush campaign tour until bad weather altered his team's test schedule. Martin voted for Bill Clinton when he ran. Now, Martin favors Bush. Martin has no problem that people know his choice.
"I really want Bush to win the election," says Martin, who admits he hasn't voted often in presidential elections but plans to this time.
Bush's Web site also lists Dale Earnhardt Jr., Bobby Labonte, Kevin Harvick, Rusty Wallace, Joe Gibbs and Teresa Earnhardt as endorsing the president. Kyle Petty is listed although he says he doesn't publicly back candidates and questions celebrity endorsements.
"My opinion is not anymore valid than the guy who drives the school bus or the lawyer sitting in downtown Charlotte or somebody riding the tractor today," Petty says. "So when a movie star or an athlete speaks, I really don't put a lot into it.
"Watch the debates. Listen to what they say. Read the editorial pages. Read both sides of the issue."