A candidate loved even by his opponent In Vermont, ex-farmer 'challenges' Sen. Leahy and captures hearts

October 15, 1998|By Scott Higham | Scott Higham,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

GRANVILLE, VT. — An article on Page 1A Thursday about Fred Tuttle's run for a U.S. Senate seat in Vermont incorrectly reported the political affiliation of the state's governor. Vermont's governor, Howard Dean, is a Democrat.

The Sun regrets the errors.

GRANVILLE, Vt. -- When it comes to political campaigns, this one is surreal.

The candidates for the U.S. Senate seat here dine together with their wives. They campaign together, like they did in this postcard-perfect mountain town yesterday. And by the time this topsy-turvy campaign is finally over, they might even vote for each other.

Bizarre in this day of hardball politics? You bet it is.

"Sure is different," said incumbent Patrick Leahy, who is running against the most unlikely of opponents for his fifth six-year term in Washington.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

Leahy, an avowed Grateful Deadhead who is no stranger to zigging while others are zagging, is facing a plain-talking, straight-shooting retired dairy farmer who has captured the hearts of thousands of Vermonters with his quips, one-liners and simple vision of life.

Fred Tuttle is his name. At 79, nearly crippled from the years he spent milking his cows, long recovered from a series of heart attacks and colon cancer, Tuttle is leading a life that eerily imitates his art.

Two years ago, the crinkly little man with a quick smile and soft eyes played the leading role in an arthouse film produced by his close friend and neighbor, John O'Brien, 35. In "Man With A Plan," Tuttle turns the political world upside-down by running for a U.S House seat against an entrenched veteran -- and winning.

Last summer, O'Brien persuaded his leading man to reprise the role. As part goof, part ploy to boost video sales for the film, Tuttle agreed to run for the Senate. Then it happened again, this time for real. Tuttle won the Republican primary Sept. 8, beating millionaire Jack McMullen by a 10 percent margin.

McMullen spent nearly $500,000. Tuttle spent about $200. That's right: $200. His low-key campaign and his 5-cent-a-plate fund-raiser -- 4 cents for seniors -- resonated with voters. So did his message: Vermont is for Vermonters. It is not for sale to high rollers like McMullen, 56, who moved to the state from Massachusetts about a year before running for the Senate seat.

Celebrity status

Everywhere Tuttle goes, folks ask for his autograph. They applaud him. Wave at him. Ask him to endorse their political campaigns. "Spread Fred" bumper stickers are everywhere. And he's going national. He's been on "Good Morning, America" and "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." He'll be on the "Tonight Show" and CNN soon.

Everyone, it seems, wants to be near Tuttle -- even Leahy, his opponent in the November election.

Why? The lifelong Republican seems to make sense.

On President Clinton's sex scandal: "It shouldn't have happened in the first place. Now it's too much in the news."

On Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr: "He's the worst one of the bunch."

On gun control: "I think we should have it."

On the growing number of Kmarts and Wal-Marts in Vermont -- a contentious issue in these parts: "No, no. no. They're too big. I get lost in there."

On Washington, D.C.: "I don't like it one bit, but I like the buildings."

So why would Tuttle keep running if he dislikes Washington and -- by most estimates -- doesn't have much of a chance of winning? His wife wants him to call it quits. But Tuttle says he's going to keep running for two reasons: he's having too much fun, and he's forcing voters to focus on Vermont.

Vermont roots

You can't get much closer to Vermont than Tuttle. His family moved to the tiny town of Tunbridge in 1832. His family tended sheep, then dairy cows. He and his wife, Dottie, raised four children. With the cows sold and the kids gone, Tuttle is savoring the campaign trail along with its 12- and 14-hour days.

Yesterday, Tuttle and his friend O'Brien traveled to Granville, a centuries-old farming town tucked in the Green Mountains, where the trees are on fire with fall colors and the air smells of sap and sawdust from the lumber mills that line the White River.

Tuttle stepped into the Granville Village School, a Leahy campaign stop, to talk to children and their parents. It was Leahy's idea to invite Tuttle along. The senator told the crowd that he had dinner with Tuttle and his wife the night before, and he introduced the retired dairy farmer to the children.

"This is probably the only place in the country where this would happen, this time of year," Leahy noted to the standing-room-only audience.

One of the students had a question.

"What's it like to have a farm?" the student asked.

"It's a lot of hard work," Tuttle said, "but it's worth it."

"What's it like to be a senator?" another asked Leahy.

"I told Fred he wouldn't enjoy it," Leahy said, the classroom erupting in laughter.

Outside the two-room schoolhouse, Paul Dreher, 32, an architect, said Tuttle had rekindled a certain civility in political campaigns, something that had been lost a long time ago.

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