Minnesota's three major U.S. Senate candidates tackled social and fiscal issues and their own campaign spending and attack ads Wednesday in their first televised debate. NBC's Tim Russert helped moderate the debate, which took place in Minneapolis before an audience convened by the Minnesota Meeting organization.
DFLer Mark Dayton and Independence Party candidate James Gibson were often in agreement on social issues, while Dayton and Republican Rod Grams were predictably at odds, particularly when debating one another's campaign tactics.
LISTEN TO THE DEBATE Listen online to the U.S. Senate candidate debate held at the Minnesota meeting on October 18th.
RUSSERT AND LOCAL NBC ANCHOR PAUL MAGERS put the candidates through their paces on Social Security, health care and budget surpluses. But questions from the audience honed in on social issues that had not been as thoroughly discussed so far in the campaign.
Independence Party candidate James Gibson took the most supportive view of laws allowing civil unions among gays and lesbians.
"If you believe that marriage is a commitment between two people," he said, "then you have to believe that gay marriage occurs all the time, because those commitments are being made. It's only a question of whether we as a society sanction in any way or accord benefits with that union. I've taken the position that this is a civil rights issue and we ought to treat it as such."
DFLer Mark Dayton agreed with Gibson, but warned that society is not yet ready for marriage ceremonies between gay and lesbian couples. Republican Rod Grams said he would not support civil unions; he didn't address benefits for domestic partners, such as Governor Ventura has proposed for government workers in Minnesota.
Gibson also voiced the most liberal view on the direction of the nation's drug policy, saying he would support decriminalizing marijuana use. Dayton didn't concur; he said as a recovering alcoholic, he believes addictions are serious and that drug treatment should be covered by insurance companies.
"Going beyond that to the sale of illegal drugs is a serious criminal matter and should be treated as such," Dayton said. "I think we should give discretion to judges to make the decision appropriate to the amount of the drug being sold and the background of that individual, but I'm very alarmed about what I consider one of the great threats to our national security which is the flood of illegal drugs into this country."
Grams said he would keep drug penalties in place, although he suggested the laws should be harsher for drug sellers, while offering more leniency and help to drug users.
Debate questions also turned to Grams' and Dayton's extensive campaign spending and television advertising. While Grams said it was Dayton's wealth that allowed the campaign to become so expensive, he then conceded he has raised the same amount of money Dayton has, about $6.7 million.
"When Mark says I've raised $6.7 million, that is from 47,000 individual contributions from Minnesotans," Grams said. "More than 77% of all the money that I've used in this campaign has come from an average donation of under $50 from Minnesotans. Mark hasn't raised money, he's written out checks totaling $6.7 million."
In addition to direct spending by Grams' campaign, the state Republican Party has also run ads on Grams' behalf, while Dayton has declined to accept similar ads from the state DFL.
Both men were also asked to account for their negative ads against one another. Dayton responded that he reviews all his own campaign ads and believes they are fair. Grams said he's forced to try to further define Dayton's positions in his ads, adding that the unflattering video of Dayton in those ads was,"the best he could find."
But Gibson got the last laugh by protesting his exclusion from their campaign mudslinging.
"Part of the problem is that I have this low name recognition. I'd really appreciate it if the two of you would run some attack ads against me," he said.
In an audience poll taken immediately after the debate, Dayton had a slight edge in audience support. But most said Grams performed most effectively in the debate, with Dayton and Gibson nearly tied for second place. And three-fourths of audience members said they'd already chosen their candidate prior to watching Wednesday's exchange.
Amy Radil covers politics for Minnesota Public Radio. You can reach her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.