The line to see former television star Ben "Cooter" Jones of "The Dukes of Hazzard" fame was already 60 people deep, and the bluegrass band inside Ray's Restaurant was belting out a tune about being "country poor but country proud."
Dave "Mudcat" Saunders was not satisfied. Jones was posing for photos and signing autographs at the Oct. 2 campaign event, but he wasn't wearing anything that showed he was supporting Democrat Eric Ferguson, a candidate for a House of Delegates seat in southwestern Virginia.
"Cooter doesn't have a Ferguson sticker on! Someone get him a sticker!" Saunders said. "Cooter" was the friendly mechanic on the television show and pal of the main characters, Bo and Luke Duke.
Immediately, Joe Stanley, the campaign manager, rushed over and slapped a black-and-yellow "Ferguson for Delegate" sticker on Jones, who kept on smiling, shaking hands and signing autographs.
"That's more like it," Saunders said in his raspy drawl. "These people need to know he's for our boy."
Saunders, a political consultant from Roanoke, helped mastermind Gov. Mark R. Warner's successful effort to win over rural voters in 2001. And to him, the music, the television personalities, the symbols of rural America are the way that Democrats can begin to communicate in traditionally Republican areas such as the 9th House District, east and south of Roanoke.
"It is culturally and socially unacceptable to identify yourself as a Democrat down here," said Saunders, 56, who was casually dressed in shorts, sneakers and a baseball cap. More specifically, he added that Democrats have lost the support of "rural white males. Why? Because they feel like the Democrats look down on their culture. So if it means getting Cooter, or a bluegrass band or whatever, we need to reach out with what touches people."
Saunders's first stab at the approach was Warner's campaign. He helped develop and execute a strategy that included touring Republican-leaning areas with blaze-orange "Sportsmen for Mark Warner" bumper stickers, a bluegrass campaign song and sponsorship of a pickup on the NASCAR race circuit. The approach is credited with helping Warner win two of the state's three rural congressional districts.
Saunders's latest quest is on behalf of Ferguson, a native of the district, who is challenging Allen W. Dudley (R-Franklin), a six-term delegate. Saunders, Ferguson and campaign manger Stanley have steered the campaign not only by inviting well-known personalities like Jones, a former Democratic congressman from Georgia, but also by having bluegrass legend Ralph Stanley cut ads and play at fundraisers for Ferguson. Their campaign motto: Ferguson is an "old-timey Democrat."
"These are people who have voted Republican for years. We're trying to tell them: 'It's okay to vote for a Democrat again,' " said Ferguson, 43, a lawyer who is running in his first race. Leaders in both parties are watching the race closely and say it has been tight for most of the fall.
"We have to be able to tell people that we care about them, but first they want to know if we're going to take away their gun," he said.
Democrats in Virginia are concentrated in urban areas. Republicans were able to take over the legislature in the 1999 elections largely by winning over rural voters with staunch support for gun rights and the death penalty.
To win back those voters, the campaign has produced ads with Ferguson -- who received an "A" rating from the National Rifle Association and supports capital punishment -- talking over an old rendition of "Happy Days Are Here Again" and using frequent NASCAR references. He takes on the values issue head on: "No one is going to out-gun, out-pray or out-country-value me," he says in one ad.
Ferguson has also taken a tough stand on illegal immigration, saying it is an important issue to his district. He said he would support bills barring illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition, an effort that many Democrats oppose.
"And I'm certain 'Give 'em hell Harry' would say, 'Why the hell is our government giving away our country to illegal aliens?' " Ferguson says in one ad. "I pledge to do everything I can to send them home."
Several Democratic politicians have said privately that they were taken aback by Ferguson's ads on illegal immigrants, which they see as a wedge issue. But Del. Brian J. Moran (Alexandria), the party caucus leader, said the leadership gives its individual candidates "wide latitude" so they may tailor their races for their individual districts.
"We trust our candidates to make the right decisions about their races," said Moran, who was on hand at the Floyd event eating hot dogs and talking with locals. He presented Ferguson with a $1,000 check from his own campaign fund.
State Republican leaders acknowledged that strategies such as Ferguson's can be effective.
"The concept is a good one. . . . They have to nominate candidates that are more conservative," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (Salem), who represents a nearby district. "The problem is . . . I don't see, outside a few pocket areas, the state Democratic Party going in that direction at all."
Indeed, Dudley has tried to associate him not with "old-timey" Democrats but with the modern state party. The delegate has run radio spots saying Ferguson is a liberal who would have backed Warner's tax increases in last year's General Assembly.
"He keeps trying to bring up FDR and Harry Truman," Dudley said. "But there's never any mention that he's running on the same ticket as Tim Kaine and Leslie Byrne," the Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor.
To Saunders, who understands the difficulty of ousting a longtime incumbent, the strategy is not only to win, but also to show rural voters that Democrats such as Ferguson can be trusted.
"This cultural stuff is powerful, and we as Democrats need to figure out how to use it real fast," Saunders said. "Culture opens the door to policy. That's the connection."
Democrat Eric Ferguson, left, a candidate for the House, chats with David Lee, 23, while campaigning in Floyd, Va..Ferguson is joined by Del. Brian J. Moran of Alexandria, left, the party caucus leader, and political consultant Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, right. Ferguson courts future voters: the Tunstall boys, Jesse, 5, and J.D., 7.