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Not Politics as Usual: Two Races Give Voters Unique Choices

Vermont and Montana offer two of the most eclectic candidates of '98, proving politics isn't just for gray suits.

Surrounded by a gaggle of excited elementary schoolchildren, a weathered Fred Tuttle, in his bib overalls and blue baseball cap with F-R-E-D across the front, is busily signing autographs.

Off to the side, Mr. Tuttle's rival in the race for one of Vermont's US Senate seats, the tall, balding incumbent, Sen. Patrick Leahy, stands alone in a red tie looking on. He's smiling.

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The two have just finished a talk at the Ripton Elementary School, a small, cheery building nestled in a stand of tall pines in the Green Mountain National Forest. Their goal is to begin civic education early and increase voter turnout.

"It doesn't matter whether you vote Democrat or Republican, just that you vote," says Tuttle, a retired dairy farmer with a thick, broad Yankee accent. "You go home and tell your parents that."

Touted as he most wholesome campaign in the country or criticized as a travesty of the political process, this is without doubt the most unusual race in the midterm election.

There are no nasty ads, no heated debates, and no righteous moralizing about the superior nature of either one's positions. Indeed, this political exercise is more about asserting the traditional Vermont values of hard work, independence, and community than it is about winning.

In fact, the Republican Tuttle makes it clear his Democratic opponent is the best man for the job. "I really don't want to go Washington and my wife says I can't - I got to have my knee operation," says Tuttle, a 10th-grade dropout whose knees gave out after 60 years of milking cows.

That Tuttle, known affectionately simply as "Fred," is an honest-to-goodness candidate came as a huge surprise, especially to himself.

He'd gained local fame as the star of "Man With a Plan," a lighthearted 1995 parody of modern politics made by his friend and neighbor, filmmaker John O'Brien. In it, Fred plays himself, a retired dairy farmer who needs money to pay for his elderly father's hip operation, fix his roof, and pay his taxes.

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On his father's advice, he decides to run for Congress. His motto: "I've spent my life in the barn, now I want to spend some time in the House."

Through determination, hard work, and his native wit and wile, Fred beats a 12-year incumbent by a hair - becoming a folk hero, the symbol of all that is good about Vermont.

"Spread Fred" bumper stickers soon began cropping up around the state in real life. Then, thanks to a weakened Republican Party, fiction began to merge with fact.

Because the state GOP couldn't find any Vermonter to run against Senator Leahy, it imported what's known in the state - not affectionately - as a Flatlander.

Jack McMullen, a millionaire businessman from Massachusetts, had owned a summer house in Vermont for 15 years. Less than a year ago, he rented an apartment by the airport. Successful, with a Harvard education and a hankering for Washington, Mr. McMullen took to Vermont's two interstate highways and dirt byways, promising to do for the Green Mountain State what he'd done for corporate America.

Right from the start, pundits said, that was not smart in a place that prides itself on its family farms, quirky businesses, and local control.

Indeed, despite a $450,000 campaign war chest and the nod from some of Vermont's Republican leaders, McMullen was from "away." Worse than that, he'd been a "summer person."

Enter Fred. It started almost as a joke. Put Fred up against the out-of-state interloper to show him that Vermont is not for sale. It struck filmmaker O'Brien as a great idea. Besides, what better promotion tool to give his local cult hit a national platform?

So the two got enough signatures to put Fred on the Republican ballot, asking: "Why not Fred?" Just as in the movie.

McMullen soon showed that his ambition ran deeper than his understanding of the state he wanted to represent.

First, he attacked Fred's candidacy as a "manipulation of a serious democratic process for commercial gain." Then, as Fred lay in his hospital bed recovering from his first knee-replacement operation, McMullen challenged the signatures on Fred's petition papers. No one in Vermont can remember any candidate ever doing that, at least not in modern times.

Then, just as in the movie, Fred's poll ratings started creeping up. McMullen's dropped.

The coup de grce came during the debate. Fred asked McMullen how many teats a cow had, and the smooth, educated politician didn't know. On primary day, Tuttle won by a solid 10 percentage points.

"All McMullen wanted to do was come in with his money and buy Vermont so he could go to D.C. without having spent any time in Vermont," says Gary Bombard, a native of Warren.

This is a place people are proud to live in, and they pay a price to do so. Jobs are scarce, and they don't pay very well. If you're one of the few farmers left, you work 80 hours a week and are fortunate to make $20,000 a year.

"You have to live the life to really understand it," says Christi Isaac, a cafe manager who moved to Vermont 10 years ago with her family because of the quality of life and the educational system here. "We have a saying: 'It's moonlight in Vermont or die,' " she says. The translation: You need at least two jobs to survive here. "You gotta know that to represent us."

Many Vermonters believe the real Senate election took place during the September primary, when they sent McMullen packing. But others are disturbed that the race has almost turned into a parody of itself - a problem in a place that takes town meetings as seriously as presidential races.

"This is not what Vermont politics is all about," says Jeff Kaufman, host of "Talk of Vermont," a weekly political talk show on the local PBS affiliate. "I don't think voters are well served by not having a dialogue that really clarifies what Senator Leahy's work has been, or what the Republican alternative might have been."

Nonetheless, for many Vermonters, the Leahy-Tuttle race gives them a welcome breather from the usual aggressive campaigns that have come to mark modern-day politics, even in Vermont. And for Fred, it's given him a chance to tour the state and see that even though it's changed, it's still not as bad as he thought it was.

"Have we done some good? I hope so, hope so," says Fred. "People seem to like it, and they're real friendly."

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