Minnesota Senate candidates lay out differences in debate
By Scott Wente
St. Paul Capitol Bureau
GOLDEN VALLEY, Minn. - Sen. Norm Coleman said he has demonstrated the courage to make difficult decisions while building a record of bipartisan accomplishment.
"Measure folks by the results," he said.
Democrat Al Franken said Coleman's results have not helped most in his home state and that he is ready to take Coleman's place and actually fight for Minnesotans.
"I want to act; that's why I'm running for Senate," Franken said. "But it's about who you're acting on behalf of."
And the third candidate, Independence Party's Dean Barkley, used the second debate in Minnesota's U.S. Senate race to argue neither Franken nor Coleman can bring about major change in Congress. He blamed them for dodging questions.
"I think I just saw the Texas two-step again," Barkley joked at one point.
The comments came during a 90-minute debate Saturday at Breck School near Minneapolis, the candidate's first televised meeting of the general election campaign.
Three Senate debates remain. The candidates will meet again Thursday night on the University of Minnesota Duluth campus. Their final two debates will be in St. Paul - Oct. 24 on Twin Cities Public Television's "Almanac" and Nov. 2 in a Minnesota Public Radio-sponsored debate.
In a debate that focused on the economy, energy and foreign policy, the candidates mainly returned to well-worn statements and avoided breaking significant new ground with just over three weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
An exchange about the recent Wall Street bailout was symbolic of the candidates' responses to a number of questions.
Franken said the package did not include enough taxpayer protections, "but we have to hope it works." He called for new infrastructure spending, more small business assistance and a new direction.
"We have to reverse the disastrous polices that we've seen over the last eight years that have led us to this," Franken said.
As he did several times during the debate, Coleman told Franken it is not enough to stand on the side and criticize.
"You can't sit in the cheap seats, look down and say I'm going to make it better," Coleman said, describing the bailout package as "putting a tourniquet around an artery that's broken." He said the bailout needs more time to have an effect.
Among foreign policy issues discussed, the candidates were asked what the U.S. response should be if Iran secures a nuclear weapon.
Franken said while no options should be taken from the table, "I think it would be a grave mistake to use military action against Iran."
He called for "patient diplomacy."
Coleman said the U.S. shouldn't advertise its strategy and that seeking energy independence would be the best way to slow down Iran.
The candidates were asked about their philosophy on Supreme Court appointments.
It starts with intellect, Coleman said, and judges should interpret the constitution, not legislate from the bench.
Franken said he would look at "judicial temperament," experience and an appointee's previous legal work.
They also were asked what they believe to be America's biggest threat. Franken said it is al-Qaeda, Coleman cited the "vitriolic partisan divide" that blocks progress on issues and Barkley said it is deficit spending.
Coleman at times challenged Barkley's positions and previous statements, including on the war in Iraq.
"I'm honored that I'm finally started to get attacked," Barkley responded. "I was wondering when I was going to."
Asked to cite a book or movie that inspired them politically, Coleman cited John F. Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." Franken named the movie "Bright Shining Lie" about the Vietnam War. Appropriate for his campaign, Barkley cited the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
The Senate debate had hints of the presidential race at times.
Franken said that he would have fought against subsidies for oil companies in 2005 energy legislation, even though most senators supported the bill.
"I'm just - I don't know - a maverick," Franken said in a reference to what GOP presidential candidate John McCain calls himself. That line drew loud laughter from Franken supporters in the audience.
Barkley, seeking to raise his profile in a race largely seen as between Franken and Coleman, stressed his main campaign issue of the need to end deficit spending and bring down the national debt.
"I don't get it. Nobody seems to care about this but me," he said.
Coleman responded: "It's not what you talk about, it's what you do."
The debate was the candidates' first meeting since Coleman announced he was pulling all of his campaign's negative advertising and urged groups that support him to do the same.
The Republican senator made the announcement Friday, saying he was changing the direction of his campaign because candidates should offer a message of hope to Minnesotans worried about the economy. Coleman also said he decided he wants voters to cast their ballots for him, not against the other candidates.
"At times like this, politics should not add to negativity," he said in his announcement.
Coleman's advertising decision came a few days after polls indicated the economic problems were hurting his chances and that Franken had taken over the lead amid Congress' action on the Wall Street bailout package. Coleman voted for the legislation. Franken opposed it and while he did not criticize Coleman's vote, he said the senator was too optimistic about its potential.
The pair of polls by the University of Minnesota's Humphrey Institute and Minnesota Public Radio released last week showed Coleman's 9-point lead turned into a 4-point lead for Franken after Congress passed the bailout package.
Although Coleman decided to pull his negative ads, he also said he would continue to respond to criticisms, but only by talking about his record.
Outside groups, such as the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, also have aired nastier ads, and candidates legally cannot control those groups' advertising.
Both candidates have aired negative ads. Franken has taken shots at Coleman by attempting to link him to the Wall Street crisis because of campaign money he accepted from financial interests. Coleman had been running ads questioning Franken's temperament. In one, Coleman's campaign used video of an animated Franken telling a story about the late Sen. Paul Wellstone's enthusiasm to insinuate an angry outburst.
Franken said Coleman's move seemed like a ploy to shift attention away from the senator's record. Franken said Coleman's decision would not influence his campaign and that he will continue to look at the senator's record.
Political observers continue to view Minnesota's Senate race, the costliest in the country, as a toss-up.
Amid prepping for Saturday's debate, Coleman said he was reviewing his strategy for the remainder of the campaign and was planning to spend even more time stumping in cities around the state.