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Graham signs up specialists in Bubbas, NASCAR Democrats

Dave "Mudcat" Saunders and Steve Jarding proved the value of putting a country twang in

Published April 9, 2003

nt face=Arial size=3 class=subhed>politics. Now they're tuning up the Graham presidential bid.

ROANOKE, Va. - As his Jeep Cherokee climbs the narrow mountain road, Dave "Mudcat" Saunders pops a CD in the stereo.

"This is about passion, brother," he says when he hears the first twangs of banjo. He cranks up the volume:

Mark Warner is ready to lead our Commonwealth

He'll work for mountain people and economic health

Get ready to shout it, from the coal mines to the stills

Here comes Mark Warner, the hero of the hills!

The song is from Warner's 2001 Virginia gubernatorial campaign. It was a throwback to the "I like Ike" jingles of the 1950s, with a bluegrass twist. City slickers like Larry Sabato, a well-known Virginia political pundit, thought it was hokey and annoying.

But Saunders didn't care.

"I wasn't going after Larry Sabato's vote. I was going after Bubba Sabato."

Saunders is now searching for Bubbas for Sen. Bob Graham's presidential campaign. He and his partner Steve Jarding are leading Graham's effort to attract rural voters.

Saunders met Graham a few weeks ago and says he came away convinced that the Harvard-educated senator had real experience in his family's cattle and dairy farms.

"We talked about lactation rates for Holstein cows and embryo transplants for Angus," he says. "That boy is the real deal."

"Shotguns and pickups'

Saunders and Jarding are pursuing a group that has been dubbed the NASCAR Democrats - conservative rural voters who often elect Republicans.

With nine Democratic presidential candidates, those rural voters could make the difference. All the candidates will try to appeal to them, but Saunders and Jarding are highly regarded because of their success in the Warner campaign.

In Virginia, the previous two Democratic candidates for governor got only one-third of the rural vote, but Warner got a surprising 51 percent.

"Jarding and Saunders deserve a lot of credit for focusing Warner on the rural areas," says Sabato, a University of Virginia political science professor. "Their strategy worked."

Through the 1960s and 1970s, rural voters were a dependable bloc that gave the Democrats control of Congress. But as the Democratic Party focused more on urban issues, Republican candidates lured away the rural voters with conservative appeals on family values, abortion, taxes and gun owners' rights.

Jarding says his party gave up without a fight.

"Democrats got fat and lazy and took rural areas for granted," he says.

But Jarding believes that the Republicans haven't delivered for the rural voters and that they are once again "up for grabs."

Jarding, 44, grew up in South Dakota and worked in campaigns for Sens. Tom Daschle of S.D. and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska.

When Jarding became Warner's campaign manager in 1998, he got a discouraging report from a strategist: With Virginia becoming a Republican state, Warner couldn't win by relying only on traditional Democratic voters. Jarding needed to broaden the base.

He met Saunders and discovered they both had the same ideas about rural voters. Their skills meshed well: Jarding as strategist and political operative, Saunders as field organizer.

"All the ideas were sitting there," Jarding says, "but I didn't know how to implement them until Mudcat walked through the door."

Their Virginia contacts could provide a big boost for Graham. Virginia's primary election has been moved up to Feb. 10 and will play a key role in selecting the Democratic nominee.

"Hear that gobbler?'

Saunders is part real-estate mogul, part hillbilly.

A native of Roanoke, the balding 54-year-old is at home in the mountains that surround the southwest Virginia town. He is so eager for the start of turkey season next week that he hops out of his Jeep to demonstrate an owl call. He says it will make turkeys "shock gobble" to give away their location.

There's a distant sound in the woods.

"You hear him? You hear that gobbler?"

Divorced with two daughters, 2 and 21, he is such a celebrity in Roanoke that he has trouble finishing dinner in restaurants because so many friends stop to say hello. He is a big bluegrass fan and has arranged for singer Junior Sisk to perform Purple Robe at his funeral.

He is a recovering alcoholic who nearly committed suicide in 1983. He was $200,000 in debt, had three DUIs and had been arrested for public intoxication and assaulting a police officer. He planned to make it look like a hunting accident.

He said a final prayer for help and then looked up. He saw something he hadn't noticed in his drunken storms - a brilliant blue sky. Suddenly, he felt everything was going to be okay.

He gave up drinking and used his compulsive tendencies to sell real estate. He got into politics at the urging of Richard Cranwell, a powerful Virginia state legislator who Saunders says "is the only one left who had any faith in me."

Saunders is a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association and likes the way the group defends gun owner's rights. But he "abhors" the NRA's Republican leanings.

He says, "I'd like to move the NRA a little bit back to the left - and I'd like to move the Democratic Party a little bit back to the right."

Graham's campaign hasn't announced how much Saunders and Jarding will be paid. But Saunders says, "Nobody goes into politics with the idea of making money. I'm doing it because I want to help the Democrats to get the true message out to forgotten America."

A NASCAR truck

In the Warner campaign, Saunders and Jarding had to convince rural voters to support a millionaire from the suburbs.

They put Warner's campaign logo on the hood of a NASCAR truck. They emphasized Warner's support of gun rights. They created "Sportsmen for Warner" and gave away camouflage hats and T-shirts. They played the bluegrass song night and day on rural radio stations.

Jarding says the campaign did not try to create an illusion that Warner was a country boy. They just told voters that Warner cared about them. "He won in rural areas because he understood rural problems," Jarding says.

After they won, Jarding and Saunders joined Sen. John Edwards' political action committee and began to assemble his presidential campaign in Iowa. But Jarding says he did not want to move to Raleigh, N.C., where the campaign was based, and he and Saunders found another candidate.

They won't reveal their strategy for the Graham campaign. But don't be surprised if they use the same things they used for Warner.

Songs and NASCAR sponsorships might seem odd to urban voters, but they work in the country, Saunders says.

"Bubba likes for you to sing to him, race for him and understand his culture."

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Bill Adair can be reached at (202) 463-0575 or

[Last modified April 9, 2003, 02:16:40]