Often speaking over a boisterous, partisan crowd and each other, Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone and Republican challenger Norm Coleman let loose pent-up frustrations in a debate Friday at the Minnesota State Fair.
The third Senate candidates' debate was by far the best attended. A few hundred people packed a grassy area outside the grandstand building to hear about the issues directly from Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone, Republican Norm Coleman, the Green Party's Ed McGaa and Jim Moore from the Independence Party.
Before any questions, each candidate had a moment to outline why they're running. Coleman talked about strengthening Social Security, the economy, national defense and education. And Coleman criticized his main opponent for seeking a third term.
"Six years ago Sen. Wellstone said after you serve 12 years in office it's time to step aside and let somebody else leave their imprint. To the senator I say, 'Minnesotans expect you to keep your promise,'" Coleman said.
McGaa, from the Green Party, called for redirecting foreign military aid to bolster domestic spending on programs like Social Security. Calling himself a 'unique' candidate, McGaa reflected on his American Indian heritage.
"I think that the American Indian culture is what you folks need. You've got to learn to be sharing, you got to learn how to be generous, you got to learn to be brave, courageous and take care of... our mother Earth," he said.
Jim Moore from the Independence Party, challenged the audience to get involved in the election by voting and he took aim at the political status quo as he explained why he quit his commercial banking job to run in one of the nation's most hotly contested Senate races.
"You no longer need to resign yourself into voting for a lesser of two evils. I'm here to give you something to vote for. If the two big old parties will not provide us with a candidate who will be a voice of the people. I, a common man, will," Moore said.
Sen. Wellstone defended his decision to run for a third term that he once said he would not seek, saying there has never been a more decisive time for the nation or world and that he wanted to help make decisions about the future of a wide range of issues including Social Security, tax cuts, deficit spending, education and health care and the environment.
"I think people want someone who will be a watchdog for them, who will be independent and who will fight for Minnesotans, put Minnesotans first, be willing to take on large economic interests, always work hard for people in the state. Minnesotans will decide that's the way it should be in a democracy," said Wellstone.
The debate quickly moved to the issue of war with Iraq and whether Congress should have the final say on launching an attack.
McGaa, Moore and Wellstone answered a resounding 'yes.' Moore said it's critical Congress decides whether to commit the nation to war. Wellstone agreed and went on to say the Bush administration has yet to make a case for an attack.
"There are questions having to do with the cost of it, both in terms of dollars and in human life, there's questions having to do with the evidence that in one way or another Saddam Hussein was linked to 9-11 or has weapons of mass destruction and is ready to use them. There are questions about a preemptive attack and could we do it alone. There are so many questions that haven't been answered," he said.
Coleman failed to directly answer the question, but did say President Bush needs to make a case for war to the nation, in much the same way President Kennedy spelled out his administration's 's position during the Cuban missle crisis.
And Coleman, who's long been critical of Wellstone's record on defense, said Wellstone should have supported the initial invasion of Iraq.
"The senator was wrong, wrong, wrong in the first Gulf War when he opposed U.S. involvement and opposed going after Saddam Hussein. We should have gone after him then. That was a mistake," Coleman said.
Wellstone and Coleman supporters, many of them waiving campaign signs, frequently interrupted the conversation, cheering and booing, despite calls for courtesy from the moderator.
Wellstone said he was proud of a bill he sponsored that would allow the reimportation of prescription drugs from Canada. He noted Coleman's campaign war chest has a sizeable amount of money from pharmaceutical companies.
Coleman ripped into Wellstone for the fact Congress has yet to agree on a bill to help seniors with the cost of medicine.
"People should be angry and they should be angry that nothing's been done. The senator's been on the health committee for 12 years and you know I think people are tired of pointing fingers and saying we didn't get it done because of this and because of this," he said.
Asked whether they would extend the ban on assault weapons passed under the Clinton administration, all candidates with the exception of Moore said yes.
On the controversial estate tax, Moore and Coleman said they favor a permanent repeal, McGaa suggested it's appropriate to pay taxes on inheritance and Wellstone, who's been repeatedly attacked on the issue, made his position clear; he favors keeping the tax with important exemptions.
"Exemption for family farmers on the estate tax, B - exemption for small businesses on the estate tax, C- exemption for anybody up to $7 or $8 million on the estate tax. I don't want anybody to be offended, but that will probably take care of all of you," Wellstone said.
At one point in the debate, the candidates were allowed to choose one opponent and ask one question. Wellstone asked Coleman what he would do to reverse the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalized abortion in 1973.
"In a recent voter guide, you said you support the complete and immediate reversal of Roe vs. Wade. I would like to know what you plan to get done if elected to immediately overturn Roe vs. Wade?" Wellstone said.
"First of all the issue of abortion is a very personal one to me," Coleman responded, as he talked about the early birth defect-related deaths of two of his four children. "Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land. I'm not going to overturn the Senate. The difference between you (Wellstone) and I is even on issues where we have deep personal agreement, I still seek to find some common ground."
Coleman called for an end to partial birth abortions and passage of legislation which would require minors receive parental consent prior to having an abortion.
The barbs continued between Coleman and Wellstone on the issue of President Bush's plans for a Department of Homeland Security and how it would affect tens of thousands of unionized government workers who could lose their contracts.
Coleman backs the President's plan. "Homeland security is a very, very critical issue and I think the administration deserves to have the flexibility to do the things that we have to do now to make sure that this country is strong," he said.
Wellstone accused the Bush administration of using the homeland security debate as pretext to remove collective bargaining rights from workers.
Coleman said the move is about flexibility, not about dismantling unions. Wellstone then challenged Coleman's understanding of the proposal.
"Norm you need to look at the bill that passed the House of Representatives and if you're a candidate for the United States Senate, you need to understand the issues, my friend," Wellstone said.
The debate ended with a question on whether the candidates would repeal recent tax cuts Moore, Wellstone and McGaa said yes. Coleman said no.
The candidates expect to debate seven or eight more times before the Nov. 5 general election, but all four have Sept. 10 primary opponents to deal with first.More from MPR