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In Offbeat Town of America's Heartland, Character Counts

There are more cows than people in Vining, Minn., where few of the 84 residents seem thrilled with their choices for president

First comes the giant, metal foot with huge toes pointing to the highway. Next is Glenn Whiting's bar and restaurant, painted a stunning purple all over. Last is the sculpture of the Volkswagen-size coffee cup, hanging in the air, forever pouring black glop into a puddle just past the Little Sicily Restaurant.

This is not the outskirts of Las Vegas, but rather tiny, feisty Vining, Minn., off state Highway 210. With a population of 84 and half a main street, Vining looks like the photo-op town that the presidential candidates missed.

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But stop and look deeper. Vining is a microcosm of the American heartland, a small slice of the landscape where the nation defines part of its character through humor, a deep sense of community, hard work, and mostly conservative politics.

As Republican candidate Bob Dole turns the heat on President Clinton for "ethical failures," many older Viningers say it's about time. To Bud Read, who was born here some 60 years ago in the house he still lives in, the president is first and foremost a draft-dodger.

"If you're going to be president," he says, standing on the lawn near his driveway, "you should be able to look back on the way you fulfilled your responsibilities. If you're drafted, you go."

For Everett Quine, a retired Army colonel who once drove President Eisenhower from town to town on a campaign trip, Mr. Clinton is an embarrassment. "We have a president who is laughed at by most of the people I know," says Mr. Quine, who leaves soon for a winter in Arizona. "Don't ask my neighbor about him, or he won't stop swearing."

Inside the purple restaurant, Mr. Whiting, proprietor, adds some perspective. "This is historically a Democratic county," he says. "So I'd say the vote will be pretty close. There are better candidates than Dole and Clinton, but Clinton is the better of the two if you ask me. Hillary? I don't know how the two of them get along."

For Ken Nyberg, creator of the oversize, offbeat sculptures that dot the town, politics is far less interesting than art. "I stay out of it," he says. His next work is an apolitical electrical plug and cord as big as a bathtub.

Retirees abound here amid dairy farms established years ago by burly Norwegians. Many spend their summers fishing by sparkling lakes and flee south or to the Southwest to escape the brutal winters. For the past 24 Augusts, Vining has attracted as many as 5,000 people for Watermelon Day.

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As Election Day approaches, residents say views here have sharpened but will likely go unchanged unless either candidate is snared in a new scandal or a major blunder.

Measuring character here, where neighbors can live miles apart, is often done from within the shadow of one's own experiences and convictions. "Should a president be disqualified because he says he didn't inhale?" asks Linda Monte, owner of Little Sicily Restaurant. "We're using a double standard, and frankly I want a leader who has experienced the good and bad so he can relate to what the problems are. I feel that just because someone is perfect, does that really make him smart?"

At the west end of town, Glen Thomas has run a gas station since 1948, the year he came home to Vining after World War II. "Dole doesn't come across as good as he should, but I'd say he's the lesser of two evils," says the life-long Republican.

When Mike Froless, newly retired from a blacktop business, stops his pickup for gas, he points to a dairy farm across the highway. "Last week about seven dairy farms closed up in the area because they can't compete anymore with the big corporations," he says. "Everything is going big. It's scary. Who's going to be for the working people?" Mr. Froless will cast his vote for Mr. Dole.

A block behind Front Street, the white tower of the Lutheran Church pokes into a blue sky. "Church for us is the center of this community," says Mr. Read. "It was the same for the Norwegians who first settled here."

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