There are two inviolate rules for politicians: Never wear silly hats. And never campaign at sporting events. People have gone there, after all, to escape reality, and candidates are often depressing reminders of what they wanted to leave behind.
So the fact that two Republican candidates for governor will be on the track at NASCAR events in Fontana this weekend says something, and it is this: The Inland Empire, that dominion of swing voters, ranks as so potentially prominent this year that being there is worth suffering the boos of 100,000 rabid race fans.
Neither candidate seems the NASCAR type. Meg Whitman, the billionaire former EBay chief, was asked to wave the green flag for Saturday's Stater Bros. 300. Steve Poizner, the Silicon Valley millionaire and state insurance commissioner, was asked to ride in the pace car for Sunday's Auto Club 500.
And they are not the only ones to venture to the Fontana speedway. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard chief running in the GOP Senate primary, was there last week. Fellow Republican Senate candidate Chuck DeVore was in nearby Corona the same day. (Barbara Boxer, the Democratic senator each would like to unseat, was in Riverside, filing reelection papers in her home county).
All the attention can seem a little odd for Inland Empire residents who used to see state politicians only from a distance as they bolted from Los Angeles to San Francisco, with occasional side trips to San Diego and the Central Valley.
Candidates follow voters, however. And as voters migrated from cities to more distant suburbs, political loyalties trailed behind. The Inland Empire, once ruby-red Republican, has turned more moderate as many of the newcomers registered as Democrats and others stayed determinedly independent.
In 2008, as economic upheaval spread, majorities in Riverside and San Bernardino counties voted for Barack Obama.
But a year into his presidency, the area is still drowning in joblessness and home foreclosures. For Republicans, that means 2008 was a blip and political control will now revert to them. Democrats counter that demographics have wrought a lasting shift, whatever the anger of the moment. In many ways, it is the nation in microcosm, fighting over the future.
"If the Republicans are going to change things, they are going to have to change here," said Shaun Bowler, a UC Riverside political scientist. "We are . . . the bloc of voters that are the angriest."
Until recently, when the effects of the recession began to thwart political expectations all over the country, the Inland Empire was moving reliably toward the center.
Bill Clinton spent much time in the area in 1992, but managed to eke out less than 40% of the vote. In 2000, Al Gore won 45% in Riverside County and 47% in San Bernardino County, precursors of Obama's majority wins eight years later.
The shift trickled down. Boxer was hardly the prototypical Inland candidate -- a female Bay Area politician from the Democratic Party's left reaches -- but she too has gained strength there. She garnered less than 40% in both counties in her first Senate run in 1992, moved to the mid-40% range in 1998 and pushed 50% in 2004.
Since then, however, the recession has ravaged the area. The vast housing tracts into which the newcomers had surged sprouted "for sale" signs, even if no one was buying. Jobs fell by the wayside, mortgages went unpaid. Foreclosure rates skyrocketed beyond those of the rest of the country.
Property values remain depressed, as if taunting those who held on. The December unemployment rate was 13.6% in San Bernardino County and 14.3% in Riverside County, well above California's 12.1%.
Blame has shifted to Obama as hopelessness has persisted.
"It's not just the foreclosures and high unemployment rates, but layered on top of that is the frustration that stimulus spending at the federal level and budget paralysis at the state level are not helping get the economy out of a rut," said Karthick Ramakrishnan, an associate professor of political science at UC Riverside who has studied local voters. "They just want to see results."
Boxer insisted last week that she would prevail. "Look, they all want the same thing, the Republicans, the independents or the Democrats, whatever," she said in Riverside.
"They want good jobs, they want education, they want clean water, clean air, they want fiscal responsibility, they want all the things I talked about."
Marty Wilson, a strategist for Boxer opponent Fiorina, said Republicans have "underperformed" in Inland areas recently, as Democrats have worked hard to attract new residents. "For Republicans to succeed statewide, we have to make a concerted effort to mobilize as well as turn out voters," he said.
That is why Fiorina found herself last week in a car on the Fontana track, in a photo op being replicated by Whitman and Poizner. The candidates hoped that, amid the catcalls, they might find a few votes. Bowler, the Riverside political scientist, burst out laughing at the thought.
" 'Oh, I'm here, in the hardscrabble, blue-collar Inland Empire,' " he said, gently mocking the approach. "For goodness' sake. I think that just irritates more people than not."
Each Sunday, The Week examines implications of major stories. It is archived at latimes.com/theweek.