-- The flap over Howard Dean's clumsy remark about wanting to be the candidate of the Confederate flag guys was about race. Is it too late to talk about gender?

Dean used the wrong decal, but he wasn't entirely wrong about what's missing from the Democratic parking lot. It's men. More to the metaphorical point, it's the NASCAR dads. These are the guys with the red-and-white "3" decals on their trucks signifying their loyalty to the late Dale Earnhardt, not the late Jefferson Davis.

So, let's start the engines again. In the last presidential election there was a gender gap of 11 points. Most women voted for the Democrats. Most men voted for the Republicans. (Don't blame me, I have the XX chromosome on my DNA pickup.) Call it a female gap, call it a male gap, but no matter how heavy the Florida hand on the electoral scale in 2000, the Democrats need to appeal to more men in 2004.

I don't know a thing about NASCAR except that it's the second-most-watched sport right after pro football, about which I also know nothing. This is why I'm not running, let alone driving, for president. But the "NASCAR dad" has replaced the "Forgotten American," "Joe Six-Pack" and the "Angry White Male" as man of the year.

Everyone seems to have a slightly different demographic portrait of the NASCAR dad. The words carry the image of a rural dad at the track with his son. But the pollster who coined the term, Celinda Lake, describes him as a blue-collar family man who's been hurt by the economy and has watched jobs shipped overseas and his brother shipped out to Iraq.

He's also the man who used to be a Democrat and then became a Republican, and may be up for grabs. But it's not clear who will grab him.

The soccer mom was the famous swing voter of the past couple of elections. After Sept. 11, 2001, it was said that soccer moms became security moms. They were even more worried than men about terrorism, about safety. They searched for a strong leader and found him in George W. Bush. Now, once again, these moms are widening their idea of security to include the threat of economic insecurity and a loss of confidence in the way the president has run the war.

But the male swing voters? On one side we have Republicans who shelved the compassionate conservative for the top-gun president in a global face-off. On the other side, Democrats are hoping that the shine is off the administration's brass and the photo-op flight suit has gone the way of the Halloween costume.

At a candidates forum held here the night that Dean humbly scraped the Confederate decal off his tongue, both he and John Edwards echoed a similar appeal to the swing men. Most Democrats want the fathers of the kids without health insurance to desert the guy who gave tax cuts to the rich.

"In cultural terms," says sociologist Arlie Hochschild, "NASCAR dad isn't supposed to feel afraid. What he can feel, though, is angry." If so, will he focus that anger on enemies abroad and identify with a commander in chief? Or will he turn away from the folks who duped him with their "Mission Accomplished" banner and their Enron economy?

And don't forget the "dad" in the NASCAR dad. In one of the more engaging moments in this forum on women's issues, the Democratic candidates -- all working parents and all but one working dads -- talked about the struggles and pleasures of raising their own kids. Will blue-collar dads choose to identify as a powerful father figure or an everyday struggling family man?

The gender gap is tricky territory. The NASCAR dad is no less a stereotype than the soccer mom. And Bob Graham, the one candidate who literally staked his name on the side of a souped-up Ford F-150 racing truck, dropped out after a lap or two. Today each of the Democratic front-runners has a somewhat different appeal to the missing men: from Dean's feistiness to John Edwards's Southern roots, from Dick Gephardt's anti-NAFTA labor pitch to Wes Clark's military background and John Kerry's battle-worn history.

More to the point, there are tricks to a gender strategy. Remember that some of the wage gap between men and women closed because of men's falling wages. A Democratic success depends on attracting men without losing women. On the NASCAR track, it's flat-out in the groove and watch out for the wall.

ellengoodman@globe.com