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The rise of 'NASCAR Democrats' | (KRT) FORT MADISON, Iowa - The hamburgers had been eaten, the speeches given and Gene Fraist and his fellow Democrats were busy posing for pictures with their famous new friend from North Carolina.

Sen. John Edwards had come to their Saturday night cookout to tell them that he was a presidential candidate who cared about the economic struggles that go on every day in rural and small-town America - including in this little corner of southeastern Iowa.

Fraist, a family farmer and state senator, said his constituents need all the attention they can get from White House wannabes. "A lot of factory workers are out of work in this area, and it's tough for farmers to get a good price for their crops and livestock," said Fraist, 71. "My own sons say, `I'm out here seven days a week - long days - and I'm barely scratching out a living. Plus, my wife has to work to help support us.'"

With the rural economy in shambles, this year's crop of Democratic presidential candidates sees an opportunity to win back a group of voters their party has all but ceded to the GOP in recent national elections.

Some have dubbed these rural and small-town voters "NASCAR Democrats." Others call them "red state" residents - a reference to the TV networks' maps from 2000. States won by Republican George Bush were red; Democrat Al Gore's were blue.

Whatever their moniker, they represent about one in four American voters and could play a decisive role in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - sites for caucus and primary votes that have traditionally winnowed the presidential field.

"It's a voting bloc that's ripe if we pay attention, if we let them know they matter," said Steve Jarding, a rural issues consultant who once worked for Edwards but now advises Sen. Bob Graham of Florida. "To our peril, we've neglected these voters."

But not any more, insist several of the nine Democrats who have lined up for the chance to run against Bush in 2004.

On Wednesday, Edwards will fly back to Iowa to give a speech - with a farming backdrop - outlining his plan for rural America. Among his proposals: establish economic revitalization zones in areas where jobs have been lost, then give businesses tax breaks if they'll locate plants there.

The North Carolina Democrat even has a new sound bite to promote his commitment to these long-neglected voters: "It's so important to us as Democrats to not treat rural America as a place you fly over from New York to California."

Graham, the other Southern senator in the race, said he will work a day on an Iowa dairy farm and perhaps sponsor a NASCAR car.

"For Democrats to be successful," said Graham, whose family has been in dairy farming for 70 years, "we've got to reconnect with those NASCAR folks."

Other presidential contenders are also reaching out to rural voters. At a "presidential town meeting" Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he wanted to bring widespread broadband cable accessibility to rural areas. That can pave the way, he suggested, for high-tech replacements for lost agricultural and factory jobs.

And Rep. Richard Gephardt from Missouri said a key part of his Iowa campaign will be trumpeting a federal farm policy that will be a better deal than Bush's.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat whose 2002 re-election was built partly on his strength in rural counties, said these voters could swing elections again in 2004 - in his state and elsewhere.

"In a race involving eight or nine individuals, it could determine whether you survive the cut," Vilsack said. "It's very important to go after those voters."

But how?

Jarding and his partner, David "Mudcat" Saunders, made names for themselves by stressing a cultural approach. In 2001, they helped put Democrat Mark Warner in the Virginia governor's mansion by, among other things, creating Sportsmen for Warner, sponsoring a NASCAR car and writing a bluegrass ditty that called Warner, who grew up in Connecticut, "the hero of the hills."

Now with Graham, Jarding said focusing on issues is important, too, but a winning strategy also needs a cultural connection.

"It's sporting and outdoor issues, music, NASCAR," he said. "It's things people do that you can relate to."

Others, though, say focusing on issues - including pocketbook concerns, rural health care and a declining property tax base for schools - is the way for Democrats to win in rural areas.

"Democrats do not do well unless they engage in agricultural issues," said Tom Buis, a lobbyist for the National Farmers Union. "When there are no big agricultural issues, rural voters will decide on cultural issues." Like guns and abortion, he said, issues Republicans have used to win.

In 2002, Buis pointed out, Sen. Tim Johnson, a Democrat, won in South Dakota by stressing farm issues. In Georgia, Republican Saxby Chambliss unseated Democratic Sen. Max Cleland in a race that had no big farm issues.

Last year Edwards' political action committee sponsored a dirt-track race car in Iowa. But Edwards' new Chicago-based media consultant, David Axelrod, who helped elect Vilsack, pooh-poohs what he calls "the NASCAR route That's the way you go when you don't have a real claim to that vote."

He said the key to victory is to have the right message and messenger. "John Edwards comes from that America," said Axelrod, referring to his candidate's roots in Robbins, N.C. - population 800. "The important thing is that we have a program: These small towns are struggling economically and people are wondering whether their kids can stay there and raise their families as they have."

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services