The major party candidates for U.S Senate talked about a variety of terrorism-related concerns at a League of Women Voters debate in Rochester. For the first time since the State Fair, all four major party candidates were on the debate stage.
A sports arena at Rochester Community and Technical College served as the venue for the fifth U.S. Senate debate. About 1,000 people listened as DFL incumbent Sen. Paul Wellstone, Republican challenger Norm Coleman, Independence Party candidate Jim Moore and Ray Tricomo, from the Green Party talked about several issues.
Many in the crowd were students. Wellstone supporters easily outnumbered Coleman backers.
When the issue of war with Iraq came up, Coleman drew jeers as he explained his support for the recently passed Congressional resolution that allows President Bush to take action against Saddam Hussein outside of United Nation's channels.
"You build supporter internationally by showing strength. Paul and I have, obviously huge differences on this. I think his path of sitting back is one that will lead to greater crisis. I think his judgement has been wrong. I think it was wrong when he said not to go after Saddam Hussein in 1991," Coleman said.
Coleman had to fight the crowd to finish making his point.
Wellstone restated his belief that by acting unilaterally against Iraq, the U.S. could jeopardize international support for the war on terrorism. And Wellstone, who's found himself frequently on the defense on national security issues, moved the discussion beyond the use-of-force resolution saying the costly missle defense system Coleman supports, should not be a spending priority.
"We need international cooperation," Wellstone said. "We need assets on the ground. A missle defense system doesn't have a heck of a lot to do with kind of terrorist attack that we've seen and the kind of terrorism that we might have to deal with. We ought to get real serious about Al Queda and the threat of terrorism is a real reality bioterrorism including. That ought to be the biggest priority of all."
Moore, from the Independence Party, said he, too, would have voted against the use-of-force resolution. Tricomo from the Green Party pledged, if elected, to travel to Baghdad and personally deal with Saddam Hussein. Tricomo described the Iraqi leaders as "a monster the U.S. created."
The candidates also talked about another real-world concern: the Washington D.C.-area sniper shootings. All four said they support the concept of creating a national data base to store ballistic fingerprinting information. Wellstone, Coleman and Moore, however, said access to the information should be restricted to protect against unlawful intrusions by the government.
The candidates also talked about maintaining civil liberties in the post 9/11 environment.
Wellstone accused the Bush administration's top law enforcement official of going beyond what Congress envisioned when, in the wake of the terrorist attacks, members passed the Patriot Act.
"Attorney General Ashcroft has gone way beyond the legislation," Wellstone said. I think tips and calling on neighbors to spy on neighbors is ridiculous. I think indeterminent detention of people without them know what their due process rights are doesn't make a lot of sense. The proposal to have ease dropping on lawyer-client meetings... I think the Attorney General has taken it too far."
Wellstone talked about striking a balance between guarding against terrorism and protecting civil liberties. So did Coleman. But Coleman did not criticize the Bush administration's approach. Instead he discussed what he called the real threats of terrorism and highlighted his background in the attorney general's office.
"What do you want in a senator? Look at our records. Look at what we've done. I'm a former solicitor general of the state of Minnesota; the person who's responsible for upholding the Constitution. I understand what the Constitution protections for us are, at the same time I was also the chief prosecutor at one time of the state of Minnesota and I understand the threat you have from terrorists and criminals and I think you need to bring the kind of balance. My whole life has been providing practical balance dealing with these very, very difficult questions," Coleman said.
Like Wellstone, Moore criticized the U.S. attorney general and warned, the nation should not repeat past civil liberties breaches.
"In our weakest moments sometimes we have stepped too far. And I think it's the job of the United States Senate in particular to provide that check and balance on the administration and I was quite frankly angered when attorney Ashcroft stepped up in front of the Senate subcommittee and accused any questions of what he was thinking as being unamerican. This is precisely what senators are supposed to do," Moore said.
Tricomo called Bush an "illegitimate president hell bent on imposing a national security state."
The Senate candidates also talked about the need for more federal spending on education. Wellstone, Coleman and Moore focused on the notion the federal government should pay a much larger share of the cost of special education.
On transportation, all four talked about the need for improvement. Moore says upgrades could be financed by cashing in on savings from a more efficiently run government.
Tricomo called for a more environmentally friendly approach to transportation.
"I would drastically raise taxes on gas. I know that's unpopular but you need a candidate who can occassionally tell the constituents what they don't want to hear or what they need to hear. I think we need to break the back of our addiction to fossil fuel and we need to stress public transportation," Tricomo said.
Coleman said providing good transportation is a key role of government. Wellstone said the federal government could help revive the economy by spending money on transportation upgrades now.
On a prescription drug benefit for seniors, Tricomo promoted universal health care. Wellstone promoted the Senate Democrats' plan. Coleman ripped Wellstone for not getting a package passed after 12 years of talking about it. Moore blamed big-money special interests Washington's prescription drug stalemate.
The four wrapped up the debate with Wellstone accusing Coleman of being beholden to business interests. Coleman accused Wellstone of failing to accomplish much, rhetorically asking who voters should trust to get the job done?.
Moore talked about being disgusted with politics as usual and called for creative and ambitous policies, citing as an example, President Kennedy's race to the moon.
Tricomo ended his first debate pledging to take the country back, by putting "a legitimate president in the White House."
The four meet again Monday in St. Cloud for a Minnesota Chamber of Commerce debate.More from MPR