RICHMOND, Virginia (Reuters) - Mitt Romney tried another lap around the track on Saturday to win over NASCAR stock-car racing fans, but rain put the brakes on his plan.
The Republican presidential candidate visited a NASCAR race on Saturday night in Virginia, targeting white male voters in a swing state where early voting begins in two weeks.
Romney joined Republican Virginia Senate candidate George Allen in serving hotdogs to fans under a tent at the Richmond International Raceway, and hundreds passed through asking for autographs and offering Romney words of support.
Romney struggled to connect with blue-collar fans of NASCAR at the Daytona 500 event in February when he said he had “some friends who are NASCAR team owners.”
The comment opened the former private equity executive to criticism that he was out of touch with ordinary voters.
On Saturday, a driving rain delayed the Federated Auto Parts 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race and sent most of the fans running for cover.
When asked who his favorite driver was, Romney responded: “There’s a lot of drivers I like.”
Romney needs to win among white men by a healthy margin to offset the advantages President Barack Obama enjoys with women as well as black and Hispanic voters. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week showed Romney with a 20 percentage-point lead among white, male voters.
The sport has grown immensely in popularity, and political visits to NASCAR tracks have become a common tactic of Republicans eager to win over white male voters.
“Romney enjoys considerable support in the NASCAR community,” according to a report on NASCAR.com. “In mid-August, NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France and team owner Rick Hendrick hosted a fundraiser for the Republican nominee at the Duke Mansion in the upscale Myers Park section of Charlotte.”
Fans of the sport usually root for a specific driver or racing team.
The Romney campaign had hoped Saturday’s visit would help it with racing fans in other battleground states like New Hampshire, Ohio and North Carolina.
“NASCAR voters are everywhere,” said senior adviser Kevin Madden, adding it was an “incredible opportunity to get a whole bunch of people together in one spot and meet as many voters as possible.”
The latest Reuters/Ipsos poll daily tracking poll on Saturday showed Obama, a Democrat, widening his national lead over Romney to 4 points.
Virginia is among a handful of states that begins early voting well before the presidential debates in the autumn and the November 6 election.
Early voting in the state starts on September 21, and while early voters are typically partisans who make up their minds early, Romney made a push on Saturday to maximize their impact.
The state is a critical part of Romney’s strategy after Obama won Virginia in 2008 with almost 53 percent of the vote, making him the first Democrat to carry the state since President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Republicans see a number of points of attack to return the state to their column, seizing on proposed defense cuts that could cost thousands of jobs in a state like Virginia, which is home to several military bases.
As part of the deal between Obama and congressional Republicans in the summer of 2011, the Pentagon could be forced to cut $1 trillion at the start of 2013 if other cuts are not identified and agreed upon.
Romney has repeatedly accused Obama of spearheading those military cuts, and the Republican has used the agreement to try to paint Obama as weak on defense.
Romney held a rally on Saturday at the Military Aviation Museum in Virginia Beach, speaking to a crowd in a hangar surrounded by military aircraft.
“I will not cut our military,” Romney said. “I will maintain our military commitment.”
Romney also sought to play to conservative Virginia voters, after Democrats suffered a snafu at their convention in North Carolina this week over the word “God” being removed from the Democratic platform.
After breaking into an impromptu pledge of allegiance during his remarks, Romney won big cheers from the crowd by proclaiming, “That pledge says under God.”
“I will not take God out of our platform. I will not take God off our coins, and I will not take God out of my heart,” Romney said.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Todd Eastham