Searching for the elusive NASCAR Democrat

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — For a moment, I was almost sure President Barack Obama’s campaign had finally revved up support from that most challenging voting demographic: the elusive NASCAR Democrat.

I have heard they exist. I once thought I caught a glimpse of a NASCAR Democrat in a tricked-out pickup with a "No. 3 Forever" decal in the back window. But darned if I’ve ever actually met one.

As uptown Charlotte is home to the handsome NASCAR Hall of Fame, and stories of the Obama campaign’s attempt to make inroads throughout the South are fodder for news pages during this week’s 2012 Democratic National Convention, I set out Wednesday morning to interview hard-core auto-racing fans who support the president’s re-election. They make the pilgrimage to the Hall of Fame by the thousands each year, and I figured the job would be easy.

Instead of encountering a long line to get into the monument to the thunderous roar of the combustion engine, I was faced with a choice: the Healthcare Forum sponsored by the Service Employees International Union or the breakfast meet-and-greet sponsored by the PBS NewsHour.

As I was invited to neither, but possessed a credential and the gifts of bluster and misdirection, I feigned fascination with the offerings and gained access to the lobby. Inside, NASCAR Nirvana – and lots of those race-fan Democrats I’ve been hearing about.

To the left was the Sunoco Glory Road, a banked ramp lined with celebrated automobiles from throughout the decades. Think of it as the full-scale, eight-cylinder evolution of NASCAR.

I worked the crowd but found the folks weren’t with the wonders of the combustion engine or made dizzy by the prospect of taking an up-close gander at Tony Stewart’s official racing suit and helmet.

They were, in fact, focused on health care issues as defined by the union’s perspective. The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, has its critics in Congress and throughout the Republican Party, but it’s a popular topic this week in Charlotte.

To the right of the lobby, the names of famous NASCAR drivers from the past lined the walls of a conference room. Surely I would find no shortage of NASCAR Democrats inside reminiscing about the sainted Dale Earnhardt Sr. and Sen. Ted Kennedy.

The room was crowded, but not a soul was heard comparing the careers of Jimmy Johnson and Richard Petty. On the contrary, everyone was talking about the rising stars of the Democratic Party. The gathering was hosted by charming PBS newscaster Gwen Ifill.

I worked the rooms for more than an hour before reaching the conclusion that the only way the Obama campaign was likely to attract "NASCAR Democrats" is if it actually escorted Democrats to the Hall of Fame and took them on a guided tour. The facility was leased this week for convention events.

Obama won North Carolina in 2008, a first for a Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1980, but if he prevails in November, it won’t be because he won over working-class white voters, the so-called NASCAR crowd. As in Nevada, a win for the president probably will hinge on his campaign’s ability to outregister the other guys and then get those new voters to the polls.

If the president is to win re-election, I suspect it will be because his campaign’s remarkable ground game managed to grow the base of support from young people and minorities, including the increasingly important Latino vote.

Not that the NASCAR Hall of Fame hasn’t been the site of substantial political activity. In fact, officials held a successful political fundraiser earlier this year.

Dream on, Democrats. It was a Republican event.

REID’S MOMENT: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid took the stage Tuesday night to a warm ovation from Democrats who know him as President Obama’s fiercest pit bull. He did not disappoint them.

"This nation has been through hard times, but those hard times have hardened our resolve," Reid said. "I’m ready to do the difficult work that’s ahead, but I want to do that work with Barack Obama and not a tea party ideologue."

Known for his extremely dry speaking style, Reid took the stage to a standing ovation.

The outpouring led MSNBC political commentator Lawrence O’Donnell to quip, "I believe that’s the first one in recorded history for Harry Reid outside Nevada."

CATHOLIC MESSAGE: A hand-painted sign outside St. Peter’s Catholic Church, which opened its doors on Tryon Street in 1851: "Catholics care about the unborn, and immigrants, and health care, and economic justice."

Just down the street, an anti-abortion protester shouts into a bullhorn about Jesus and added of the Democrats, "They want to kill. They want to kill at taxpayer expense!"

ENTHUSIASM GAP: The press this week is spending a lot of time contemplating the "enthusiasm gap" Obama faces in the campaign. Reporters spout polling data and quote political experts as they describe the phenomenon.

Larry Williams could have saved them a lot of trouble.

Williams came to Charlotte from Dallas to sell Obama T-shirts, and business is pretty good – but not like it was in 2008. Back then, people stood in line for his merchandise.

"There was a lot of enthusiasm four or five years ago," Williams says. "There has been a big drop-off, but I think he’ll still win."

It will be better for sales if he does.

HEY, AREN’T YOU : When the convention isn’t meeting, the uptown streets are lined with attendees and reporters with time on their hands. While celebrity-watching is a popular pastime, you never know who will draw a crowd of journalists.

On Wednesday, the sidewalk was clogged as TV personality Geraldo Rivera held forth.

Geraldo Rivera? In 2012?

Just down the street, Mark Shields was busy offering his perspective.

You know. The PBS guy.

HOMEBUILDERS: Habitat for Humanity, identified most closely with former President Jimmy Carter, is building a house during convention week.

No word yet on whether the home has already lost its value.

TRAFFIC COPS: When a contingent of law enforcement veterans from the Clayton County, Ga., Sheriff’s Office was assigned to help control traffic in Uptown Charlotte for the convention, the officers decided to have a little fun. All week they’ve been dancing and whistle-blowing and generally entertaining pedestrians and drivers on Tryon Street.

"It’s all impromptu," Deputy Michael Johnson says. "We’re just having a good time."

They’re SWAT officers back in their home jurisdiction, which includes the southern end of Atlanta, but this week they’ve made national news as a bunch of whistle-blowing wisenheimers.

"We’re not going to stand for 12 hours a day for seven days and not have a little fun," says Johnson, a 15-year veteran.

Those Georgia cops are getting more air time than most of the senators here.

PAGING MR. : A quick convention quiz: Whose name has been mentioned less often in recent days? George W. Bush at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., or John Edwards this week in Charlotte?

ON THE BOULEVARD: Rep. Shelley Berkley’s busy Wednesday schedule included two events sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a meeting with members of Nevada’s delegation at the Capital Grille. It was closed to the press.

Email comments and contributions for John L. Smith to Smith@reviewjournal.com or call 702-383-0295. He also blogs at lvrj.com/blogs/smith.

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