Turn off the highway onto the main drag of downtown Osseo and it just feels old school. Unlike its suburban neighbors dominated by faux main streets and big-box retail, plant pots hang from light poles and businesses have names such as George's Barber Shop. Immaculate ranch houses are what city people would call mid-century, though an Osseoite probably wouldn't.

For political strategists, Osseo is also a unique and pivotal demographic area that could swing either way on Election Day and perhaps indicate which way the nation will go. Osseo was one of a dozen communities in the state that saw the 2004 presidential election decided by fewer than three percentage points.

"The town is one square mile, and we have one police car," said Barb Lindquist, who was planting begonias in the memorial park one day. "A lot of people move back here when they retire."

In fact, Osseo trends older than most of the surrounding suburbs, with 42 percent of residents age 45 or older; 20 percent are over 65.

Age is one of the elements that make Osseo demographically and politically distinctive for this presidential election.

It is also overwhelmingly white and more blue collar than most other suburbs. Osseo leans Republican, but just barely. George Bush beat John Kerry by 1.7 percent in 2004, so Democrats have targeted the congressional district in which it sits as one of their "red-to-blue" areas.

Perhaps then it's not surprising that Osseo was an anomaly among metro area DFLers with Hillary Clinton beating Barack Obama in the caucuses.

Ed Gross, a political number cruncher for Democrats, said that the race "will be decided in the metro suburban areas, Anoka, Washington, Dakota, suburban Hennepin, and Ramsey counties." He predicts 3 million voters in the state will turn out, compared with 2,850,000 in '04.

"It was common knowledge that 'as Osseo goes, so goes the nation,'" said humorist and writer Kevin Kling, who grew up there. "I don't know if Osseo is the chicken or the egg though. Or more to the point I'm not sure if Osseo has its finger on the pulse or is the heart itself. Even if it isn't the heart, you could always win one at the meat raffle at Dick's Bar."

Friendly differences

Osseo may be politically divided, but it's not polarized.

"There's a Republican," said Alan Lindquist, president of the Osseo Business Association. He was driving the town "trolley," a golf cart that volunteers use to give seniors free rides to the beauty parlor or meat market. "People don't talk politics much, but everyone knows who is a Democrat and who is a Republican. It doesn't matter."

Down the street, C.J. Spartz is up on a ladder cleaning gutters. If, as Barb Lindquist thinks, age will be a factor in the presidential race, you might take Spartz, a nimble 85, for a McCain or Clinton backer. You'd be wrong.

"I've said from the beginning Obama was going to take it," Spartz said. "I still think so. Bush did not make a very good impression on me with his war. I think we need a change."

Besides the war, Spartz is most concerned about the economy. "I have not seen the economy in such bad shape since Herbert Hoover beat me out of a bicycle," he said. "I wanted a bike, but we were too poor."

A few blocks away, Bill Christenson sits in his office in the back of Dick's Bar, named after his father. There's a "GIPPER" license plate on the wall with a picture of Ronald Reagan.

He's ready for a change, too, unless it means a Democrat. He hoped Mitt Romney would be president, but he'll settle just fine for John McCain.

Christenson agrees the economy's a challenge. He sees it every day after work. His bar has as many or more customers, "but they don't spend as much," he said.

"Taxes and spending are my big issues," Christenson said. "Like I've told my kids, the main difference between the Democrats and Republicans is that Republicans say: 'This is your money, spend it how you like.' Democrats say: 'This is your money, we'll spend it for you.'"

Immigration is also a personal issue. "My mother is from Mexico, but she's an American citizen," the bar owner said. "Even she gets really irritated at people who won't [emigrate] the right way."

Downplaying race

In 2000, blacks made up only 1.2 percent of Osseo, according to the U.S. Census. But not many here think race is a major issue.

"If it is an issue, it's because the Democrats have made it one," said Will Lienemann, who has been an Osseo businessman for 40 years. "I'd have no problem voting for Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell. But Obama is too far left. The programs he's proposing will cost a heck of a lot of money."

Ashwin Madia has a unique perspective on race in Osseo. He won the DFL nod to fight for the U.S. congressional seat vacated by Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn. Madia, whose parents are from India, went to Osseo High School. Being one of the few minorities didn't stop him from becoming student-body president. Madia served in Iraq and volunteered in 2000 for McCain before becoming a Democrat. He's not saying which candidate he is supporting for president, but he thinks race is overblown.

"I think people are just looking for an honest and pragmatic leader who will look them in the eye and tell them what is happening in this country," he said.

Kling agrees.

"I don't think race will play a very large role. Osseo was settled by potato farmers. Anyone who knows potatoes knows they have a lot of eyes that cannot see or, at best, are very near-sighted," he said.

Clair Coughlin is a retired teacher and considers himself an Independent, though he leans Democrat.

"Osseo is not any different from any other town in that we do have some prejudice," he said. "But I don't think it will be a factor to an overwhelming degree."

Of the three remaining political candidates, Coughlin favors Clinton. But he now realizes that may not be an option. He thinks the war in Iraq has been mishandled, so McCain's support of it doesn't make it easy to vote for him. The choice of vice president might influence Coughlin.

If McCain chooses Gov. Tim Pawlenty, however, Coughlin is even less likely to vote for him.

"I don't like to pay taxes, just like everybody else," Coughlin said. "But I think they've taken this no-new-taxes to the extreme. I think he's letting the state go to pot, but he's not the only one. I'm mad at a lot of Democrats, too."

Coughlin's tendency to separate policy from politics and think independently is typical of Osseo, Kling said.

"The fastest way to get an Osseoite to vote for someone is tell them they can't," he said. "Time and again I still find myself voting against my own better judgment just to show I've got my own mind."

This time, that means Kling is supporting Obama, because "hope is a stronger force than fear."

Like most in Osseo, Kling wants whoever wins to avoid the partisanship and rancor that often divides the country.

"Think of it as pushing a car out of a snowbank," he said. "Our country is the car. Where we are is the snowbank. At this point it doesn't matter who was driving. What matters is we all need to push from the same side. If all else fails: Rock it."

Jon Tevlin • 612-673-1702