Republican Mitt Romney’s appeal to the NASCAR vote sputtered out during his last visit to a race, steering his campaign straight into political trouble in February when he seemed to associate himself more with team owners than fans of the sport.
When he visited the Richmond International Raceway tonight, the Republican presidential candidate doggedly worked to keep his campaign on track even as a storm washed out the actual race. As the rain pounded the track, Romney signed helmets, greeted fans and chose his answers carefully.
“There’s a lot of drivers I like,” he told reporters.
The carefully choreographed appearance marked a better performance than Romney’s last lap. When he toured the Daytona 500 in February, Romney told a reporter that although he didn’t follow the sport as closely as some ardent fans, he has “some great friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
Democrats and his Republican Party primary rivals pounced on the remark to paint him as wealthy and out of touch with the average American. Romney amassed a $250 million fortune from his work as a private equity executive at Bain Capital LLC.
Romney’s campaign prepared a more friendly reception for the candidate tonight, sponsoring a tent and buying 1,000 hot dogs for him to hand out to hungry fans.
Supporters wearing yellow ponchos emblazoned with the slogan,“race car drivers 4 freedom” handed him T-shirts to sign. Hoping to reach fans who couldn’t attend, Romney posed for photos with drivers Jeff Burton and Paul Menard in front of a stock car plastered with the Romney campaign logo.
Still, everything didn’t go entirely as planned in Virginia, one of the three Southern states (if Florida, the home of NASCAR, is counted in that group) that Obama won in 2008. The rain forced the campaign to cancel plans for Romney to drive his campaign bus around the track in front of hundreds of thousands of fans.
Romney’s visit to the track, the third of his campaign, was aimed at helping expand his advantage among white working class voters. Romney aides see support from this demographic, particularly working class men, as crucial to offsetting President Barack Obama’s advantage among black and Latino voters in swing states such as Ohio and Virginia.
Though Romney leads in polls of working-class voters, the Harvard-educated son of a former Michigan governor lacks a natural connection with the group. Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum consistently performed better among white working-class Republicans during his unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination.
That didn’t bother John Stanley, a Romney supporter attending his fifth race this year, who said the candidate seemed at ease on the raceway.
“He seems like that kind of down to earth guy,” he said.