Only in Vermont

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Only in Vermont do the leaves color up so brightly. And only in Vermont does the Republican Party embrace its official candidate for the US Senate so reluctantly.

That's because party officials think Fred Tuttle made a mockery of the primary election on Tuesday, by stomping their boy into the backyard muck. Their boy is, or was, Jack McMullen, newly arrived from Massachusetts with several million dollars and an itch to throw Patrick Leahy out of the seat he's held for 24 years.

Fred Tuttle is a near-octogenarian retired dairy farmer from tiny Tunbridge. He campaigned mostly from the front porch of the farmhouse where he hasn't yet lived all his life. He said things like "More people should vote." And "We need to take care of old people." The Republican establishment in Vermont tried to get Mr. Tuttle thrown off the ballot, then tried to get him to withdraw, and, in an ironic turn, asked Senator Leahy to get Fred to quit.

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Fred didn't quit, and when he won by 10 percentage points he said in an accent thick enough to require a translator: "I love Vermont! Where else could a farmer beat a lawyer? Where else could a poor man beat a millionaire? Where else could a 10th -grade dropout beat a Harvard man?"

Last week there was a debate on statewide radio, and Fred Tuttle got in some telling blows. Shrugging off his lack of knowledge of the First Amendment, he asked, "What's a tedder, Jack?" Mr. McMullen didn't know a tedder is a farm machine for spreading hay. He tried to counter by reciting the names of Vermont's 14 counties. But the debate reinforced the image of an outsider trying to represent a state whose people and traditions he did not know.

Many Republicans think Leahy put up Tuttle to spoiling their primary and then schemed with other Democrats to defeat McMullen by cross-voting. In Vermont, where independence and individualism go hand in hand, a voter's party allegiance is his or her private business, and election officials do not ask. Instead they hand voters blank ballots for all the parties in the primary, with instructions to fill out one and drop the unused ones into a separate bin. So it's possible for Democrats to vote in the Republican primary, and many did, for two reasons.

First, there wasn't much going on in the Democratic primary, and, second, they resented McMullen.

"Here's a rich fella from away, a flatlander," said one indignant town clerk. "And he moves up here from Massachusetts, and before he's got his suitcase unpacked he's out running for the Senate. That don't sit well with me."

It didn't sit well with thousands of other Vermonters either, who rejected big-money politics and carpetbagger opportunism with one vote. The protest embodied in Tuttle's candidacy spread across the state. In fact, it generated a slogan: "Spread Fred!" Tuttle spent about $200 on his campaign. McMullen spent almost $250,000 in a losing effort.

The reason an outsider became the GOP's candidate of choice is that Leahy has spent decades demolishing one Republican after another, and has a huge war chest, ready to do it again. No serious political observers here think he's vulnerable, and no home-grown challenger stepped forward to walk the plank this time.

Fred Tuttle ran because he and his director wanted to protest the McMullen candidacy.

Yes, Fred has a director. You see, he's a movie star. In a modest little film called "A Man With a Plan," Tuttle played a retired dairy farmer who ran for Congress because, well, the money's good. In the movie he won. The movie should do better now that he's won the primary. But Leahy need not shudder.

"I don't like Washington," said Fred. "And Pat's a good man."

Will Fred run hard at Leahy? Or will he sit on that porch and say nice things about the "good man" from now until November, while neither of them spends the big money that now dominates electoral politics everywhere else? How Leahy's colleagues must envy him an election campaign that could happen only in Vermont.

* Steve Delaney, former host of Monitor Radio 'Early Edition,' lives in Milton, Vt.

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