The two candidates for the Republican gubernatorial endorsement participated Tuesday night in the final debate before the state's party convention later this week. House Majority Leader Tim Pawlenty of Eagan and Orono businessman Brian Sullivan are engaged in a close race to win the party's endorsement. Both candidates say they'll drop out of the race if delegates choose their opponent. The debate - sponsored by Minnesota Public Radio and the St. Paul Pioneer Press - didn't offer many surprises, but reinforced where the candidates stand going into the convention.
Pawlenty says he's better qualified since he has nine years of legislative experience. As House Majority Leader he says he learned to build consensus on issues in order to get legislation passed. He also says his real world experience comes from his upbringing since he's the son of a South St. Paul truck driver and homemaker. Pawlenty says he worked his way through college and has lived in Minnesota his whole life. He says his background and experience will help draw middle of the road and blue collar voters to the Republican party. He says he's best suited to take on a slate that includes DFL endorsed Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, Green Party endorsed candidate Ken Pentel and - if he decides to run - Governor Ventura.
"In these troubled times when you have a war, when you have recession, when you have budget deficits and have thousands of Minnesotans being laid off this is a time for season-tested hands on the throttle of Minnesota. We need people and I think people are looking for that kind of leadership," Pawlenty said.
Sullivan, who made millions after he sold his water purification business, says Minnesotans want a candidate who isn't part of the political establishment. He says voters sent an anti-government message when they elected Gov. Ventura in 1998 and now are disappointed in the results.
This is Sullivan's first attempt at office and he says he has gained the necessary experience through the business sector. He says some of the state's greatest governors had little or no experience.
"The people who have been in government have basically delivered you the fourth-highest taxes in the country, the fifth-highest job taxes in the country that have driven many of our rural communities to the brink. They've ignored our roads, they've dumbed down our kids with a horrible curriculum. And the question is: do we need to take the same approach and more of that or do we need to take a different approach? Do we need to bring some people into government and do we need a governor who has some real world, hands on experience?" Sullivan said.
Sullivan and Pawlenty don't differ dramatically on the issues. Both say they will not raise taxes as governor and believe they can balance the state's projected budget deficit through cutting government programs.
On education, they say they'd like to repeal the state's Profile of Learning and provide local communities with more control of the schools. They both agree that the state's K-12 funding level is appropriate, but say the money isn't spent wisely. Sullivan says the state needs to initiate reform that allows educators to focus on the basics like reading and math.
"How are we focused? Are we emphasizing the things that will make the biggest differences for kids who might grow up in tough backgrounds and might grow up in poverty? And I don't think we have and I think the results speak for themselves. This is the single largest crisis in Minnesota - the fact that we have tens of thousands of children in Minnesota that have no hope of ever participating in the American dream," he said.
Pawlenty says the state needs to provide schools with ways to lower class sizes. He also says the state could improve education by encouraging alternatives like open enrollment, charter schools, home schooling or providing tax credits to help parents get their children into a private school.
Pawlenty also says the state needs to encourage parents to get involved with their child's education. "There are some schools where it works," he said. "If you show me a neighborhood where parents care about education, they're taking care of their kids and on task with their homework and I'll show you a school that's doing pretty well. You show me a neighborhood has broken down and the pathologies have set in and I'll show you a public school that doesn't work so well."
On the issue of the rural economy, Pawlenty says Minnesota needs to create more ways to market the state's crops. He says he supported a new state law that requires all diesel fuel in the state to contain a vegetable blend in a few years. He also says he'd like to establish tax free zones to help rural areas attract business. He says Minnesota's rural areas could suffer if the state doesn't provide incentives for businesses and people to move there.
"If we're going to bring back people and businesses and jobs we have to get very bold in parts of Greater Minnesota that are in severe decline and that's why I want to bring tax free zones to parts of Greater Minnesota. Just like Gov. Engler did in Michigan, just like Gov. Ridge did in Pennsylvania. They work and they are literal zones that are free of taxation for businesses and people. They have ignited job growth and economic recovery in those states. I want to bring those to Minnesota," Pawlenty said.
"I'm not in the business and the state shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers," Sullivan countered. He said he wouldn't have supported the biodiesel law that passed this year because it was a government mandate. However, he says he supports the concept. He also says he opposes tax free zones because he prefers a statewide policy of reducing government regulation and cutting taxes.
"Those in politics seem to believe that they're the smart people that can figure out which community is going to thrive and which community won't. In the early '80s, when our country was struggling economically, our president decided that our country as a whole needed to be in a lower tax, more regulatory fair environment. We didn't target the Iron Belt. We didn't target Northwestern parts of this country and say we're going to create special programs for you. We recognized that opportunities come from everybody. We need to make this state as a whole an enterprise zone," he said.
Both candidates also say they would require the state to use all of its gas tax and motor vehicle sales tax revenues on roads and bridges. They say they would encourage the state to borrow more money to start more road and bridge projects.
In addition, both say they oppose legal abortions but would allow the procedure in some instances. Pawlenty says he'd allow abortions in cases of rape, incest or if the mother's life was in danger. Sullivan says he would only support abortion if the mother's life was in jeopardy.
Sullivan's stance on abortion turned away one potential voter who said she wasn't sure who she would vote for. Christina Harrison of Plymouth says she agreed with both candidates on many of the issues but is concerned about Sullivan's abortion policy.
"Things were so close between them that it boiled down to abortion. Brian Sullivan's position, what they talked about if a woman is raped, forcing a woman to have a child. I can't agree with that at all so my support is with Tim Pawlenty," she said.
Both Pawlenty and Sullivan will be courting Harrison's husband, David, over the next few days. He's a delegate and isn't sure who he'll choose at the convention. Harrison says he'll try to figure out which candidate is most electable in November since both have impressive resumes. He says he's working to see which candidate would be best suited to take on Gov. Ventura and Moe.
"I'm trying to decide which is going to help defeat the two opponents and how are we going to capture that group of 40 percent of the people who go to the polls that are undecided," he said.
Harrison and the other delegates will decide on Friday if Pawlenty or Sullivan will represent their party in the November election.More from MPR